New Statesman Contents
Essayism is ultimately about how literature can make a difference
July 23rd, 2017, 06:35 PM

Brian Dillon’s study of the essay is a beautiful and elegiac volume – having read it, I re-read it.

It is somewhat unseemly for a critic to confess that their immediate reaction to a book is one of unremitting envy. But Brian Dillon’s study of the essay is so careful and precise in its reading of a constellation of authors – Derrida and Barthes, Didion and Sontag, Browne and Burton, Woolf and Carlos Williams, Cioran and Perec – that my overall feeling was jealousy.

Dillon is a writer on art and culture and a tutor at the Royal College of Art, and the author of an award-winning memoir from 2005, In The Dark Room, about losing both his parents in his youth. A remarkable meditation on memory, it shares with his other work – an examination of hypochondria, Tormented Hope, and his writing on the cultural significance of ruins – a wide and nimble range of reference as well as a sense of personal grief and literary anomie.

 In Essayism, Dillon deals, with a kind of weary shrug, with the etymology of “essay”. But more than just sauntering through “attempt”, “try” and “test”, he digs much deeper: from essayer he goes to examen, the needle of a scale, an image of control. The essay is both a proposition and the judge of it. What truly comes across in this book is that the essay may well be a sally against the subject, but what is tried, in the final reckoning, are the authors themselves. And, of course, found wanting, in both senses of the word. The essay, in Dillon’s account, is both erotic and absent, lapidary and profuse, and is at its best when always concerned with its own realisation of its inherent sense of failure. Before this discussion of etymology, though, comes a bravura cadenza of topics, placed to make us realise the essay is never about what it claims to be at all.

The close readings of various essayists are counterpointed by chapters headed “On Consolation”. This is some of Dillon’s most autobiographical writing to date. In Essayism he both excoriates and exorcises, using the essay as a flail and a balm. In other
essayists he finds mirrors of his own joys and despairs, particularly in a wonderful piece about Cyril Connolly, which deserves commendation simply for not mentioning the pram in the hall.

Essaysism resists defining its subject. As the critic David Shields has said, you don’t have a drawer labelled “non-socks”; and “non-fiction” is a singularly slippery notion. Dillon’s “essays” range from aphorism to such glorious sprawls as Robert Burton’s 17th-century treatise The Anatomy of Melancholy. Some are journalistic, others are philosophic. To an extent, it is the very fluidity that Dillon admires; but above all he claims to admire style, and he is exceptionally good at defining the styles he likes. He reads more into the placing of a comma in a piece by Elizabeth Hardwick than most critics might find in the whole of her work.

This neatness, as it were, typifies the book. It is about noticing, and scrutinising, and reflecting. He has a keen ear for when a sentence has a word that is somehow out of key – “porcupine”, “broccoli” – yet possesses a strange beauty.

The book shifts into a higher gear when Dillon writes about his own depression. There is never a moment where he asks the reader to feel sorry for him. There is a steeliness in his descriptions of the nebulous haze that anti-depressants led him into; a stoic willingness to face one’s own sadness. Books, and the tiny curlicues of beauty he notes in them, were a kind of redemptive force for Dillon, far more so than Prozac. That at one point he found consolation in the pages of the NME is remarkable.

His account of depression is reflected in thinking about the essay. Is it something composed of fragments and shards? Is it a coolly organised progression? Is it about confession? Is it about concealment? The book’s excellence lies in the way these paradoxes are held suspended.

It seems churlish to mention omissions, but I do so because I would like to read what Brian Dillon would have to say about figures such as William Hazlitt, Richard Steele, Matthew Arnold or Iain Sinclair (perhaps our most essayistic novelist). And Dillon’s assertion about the absence of a literature of sickness is unjustifiable if one considers Thomas Mann, Knut Hamsun, Céline. His canon is, as all are, arbitrary: they are the pieces of writing that mattered to him when they mattered most.

The book, ultimately, is about how literature can make a difference. It is a beautiful and elegiac volume. I can give no greater compliment than to say that having read it, I re-read it. 

Essayism
Brian Dillon
Fitzcarraldo Editions, 228pp, £10.99

Photo: Getty
Jeremy Corbyn: "wholesale" EU immigration has destroyed conditions for British workers
July 23rd, 2017, 06:35 PM

The Labour leader has told Andrew Marr that his party wants to leave the single market.

Mass immigration from the European Union has been used to "destroy" the conditions of British workers, Jeremy Corbyn said today. 

The Labour leader was pressed on his party's attitude to immigration on the Andrew Marr programme. He reiterated his belief that Britain should leave the Single Market, claiming that "the single market is dependent on membership of the EU . . . the two things are inextricably linked."

Corbyn said that Labour would argue for "tarriff-free trade access" instead. However, other countries which enjoy this kind of deal, such as Norway, do so by accepting the "four freedoms" of the single market, which include freedom of movement for people. Labour MP Chuka Umunna has led a parliamentary attempt to keep Britain in the single market, arguing that 66 per cent of Labour members want to stay. The SNP's Nicola Sturgeon said that "Labour's failure to stand up for common sense on single market will make them as culpable as Tories for Brexit disaster".

Laying out the case for leaving the single market, Corbyn used language we have rarely heard from him - blaming immigration for harming the lives of British workers.

The Labour leader said that after leaving the EU, there would still be European workers in Britain and vice versa. He added: "What there wouldn't be is the wholesale importation of underpaid workers from central Europe in order to destroy conditions, particularly in the construction industry." 

Corbyn said he would prevent agencies from advertising jobs in central Europe - asking them to "advertise in the locality first". This idea draws on the "Preston model" adopted by that local authority, of trying to prioritise local suppliers for public sector contracts. The rules of the EU prevent this approach, seeing it as discrimination. 

In the future, foreign workers would "come here on the basis of the jobs available and their skill sets to go with it. What we wouldn't allow is this practice by agencies, who are quite disgraceful they way they do it - recruit a workforce, low paid - and bring them here in order to dismiss an existing workforce in the construction industry, then pay them low wages. It's appalling. And the only people who benefit are the companies."

Corbyn also said that a government led by him "would guarantee the right of EU nationals to remain here, including a right of family reunion" and would hope for a reciprocal arrangement from the EU for British citizens abroad. 

Matt Holehouse, the UK/EU correspondent for MLex, said Corbyn's phrasing was "Ukippy". 

Asked by Andrew Marr if he had sympathy with Eurosceptics - having voted against previous EU treaties such as Maastricht - Corbyn clarified his stance on the EU. He was against a "deregulated free market across Europe", he said, but supported the "social" aspects of the EU, such as workers' rights. However, he did not like its opposition to state subsidy of industry.

On student fees, Corbyn was asked "What did you mean by 'I will deal with it'?". He said "recognised" that graduates faced a huge burden from paying off their fees but did not make a manifesto commitment to forgive the debt from previous years. However, Labour would abolish student debt from the time it was elected. Had it won the 2017 election, students in the 2017/18 intake would not pay fees (or these would be refunded). 

The interview also covered the BBC gender pay gap. Corbyn said that Labour would look at a gender pay audit in every company, and a pay ratio - no one could receive more than 20 times the salary of the lowest paid employee. "The BBC needs to look at itself . . . the pay gap is astronomical," he added. 

He added that he did not think it was "sustainable" for the government to give the DUP £1.5bn and was looking forward to another election.

Jeremy Corbyn. Photo: Getty
The Sad Part Was: this story collection puts the real Bangkok on display
July 23rd, 2017, 06:35 PM

Thai author Prabda Yoon descends into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters.

In Bangkok’s budding literary scene, Prabda Yoon sits at the centre. Born in 1973, he’s the scion of a well-known family (his father Suthichai Sae-Yoon is the co-founder of the Nation newspaper) and is known in Thailand as not only an enfant terrible of letters but as an illustrator, screen-writer and director (his first film, Motel Mist, was shown at European festivals in 2016).

His reputation rests mainly on a collection of short stories published in 2000 entitled in Thai Kwam Na Ja Pen, roughly translated as Probability, and it is from this early collection that most of the stories now collected in The Sad Part Was are derived. Translated with cool elegance by Mui Poopoksakul, they are among the first modern Thai stories to be published in the UK.

As Poopoksakul points out in her afterword, she and Yoon are the products of similar backgrounds and epochs: upper-middle class children of Bangkok who came to consciousness in the late Eighties and Nineties. Often foreign-educated, fluent in English and conversant in global pop culture and media – Yoon did a stint at Parsons in New York after prep school at the Cambridge School of Weston – this new generation of Thai writers and artists were born into a society changing so fast that they had to virtually invent a new language to transcribe it.

In The Sad Part Was, the result is stories that one could glibly label as “post-modern” but which, in reality, perfectly match the qualities of the megacity where they are set. Bangkok is infamously mired in lurid contradiction, but it’s also a city of subtle and distorted moods that journalism and film have hitherto mostly failed to capture. The whimsical and playful surfaces of these stories have to be read against the high-octane anxieties and surreal dislocations of what was, until recently, one of the fastest-growing cities in the world.

Yoon uses the short form of the ten-page story to descend into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters: a schoolgirl and a beautiful female teacher who form a platonic lesbian infatuation while riding a daily bus in “Miss Space”; a couple making love during a thunderstorm whose activities are interrupted by the dismantling of two giant letters, which fall onto their roof in “Something in the Air”; a young man who meets a mysterious older man in Lumpini Park called Ei Ploang, who forces him to consider the intertwined nature of good and evil. In “Snow for Mother”, a mother waits for her little boy to grow up so that she can take him to Alaska to experience the real snow, which he never knew as a little boy in the tropics.

In “The Sharp Sleeper”, a man named Natee obsesses over losing his shirt buttons and is led into a strange reverie on the nature of dreams and the competing qualities of red and yellow pyjama shirts (Thailand’s political culture is riven by two parties popularly known as Red and Yellow Shirts). The commentary slips into effortless sarcasm:

Natee has proudly worn the red pyjama shirt several times since then, and his dream personality hasn’t altered at all. On the contrary, the shirt has encouraged him to become a man of conviction in his waking life. As to what those convictions were supposed to be, Natee wasn’t quite sure. But it was safe to say that a night shirt so principled wouldn’t drop a button so easily.

Since these stories were written, Bangkok’s political schizophrenia has lost its former air of apathy and innocence, but Yoon’s tone is quietly prescient about the eruption of violent irrationality a few years later. It’s a reminder how precious the subtlety of fiction is when set against the shrill certitudes of activism and reportage.

My favorite story here is “Something in the Air”. Its dialogues are written with hilariously archaic, bureaucratic formality, while delving into the disorientation of sexual and romantic hopes in the present century. After the couple’s love-making is interrupted, the young man suggests insolently to the woman that they resume in the open air, exposed to the furious elements. She agrees. They then notice that a dead body is lying on the roof nearby, crushed by the giant letters.

While waiting for the police to arrive, the woman sits quietly and describes her future, a happily married future in which her current lover will play no part whatsoever. He listens in melancholy astonishment until the couple are called to give their testimonies about the dead man. The officers then suspect that the couple themselves have done something scandalous – and so, stung by shame, the woman considers breaking off the relationship and setting in motion her own prophesy.

The Sad Part Was is unique in the contemporary literature of Bangkok – it doesn’t feature bar girls, white men, gangsters or scenes redolent of The Hangover Part II. Instead it reveals, sotto voce, the Thai voices that are swept up in their own city’s wild confusion and energy, and it does so obliquely, by a technique of partial revelation always susceptible to tenderness.

Lawrence Osborne is a British novelist living in Bangkok. His next book, “Beautiful Animals”, will be published by Hogarth in August

The Sad Part Was
Prabda Yoon
Tilted Axis Press, 192pp, £8.99

Photo: Prime Images
Sarah Hall's dark short stories are fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment
July 23rd, 2017, 06:35 PM

The displacements in Madame Zero are literal, figurative and occasionally fantastical.

There’s no story called “Madame Zero” in Sarah Hall’s new collection: the title floats enigmatically above this dark and memorable set of stories. A passing mention of “Cotard. Capgras. Madame Zero” gives a clue, but the reader has to scurry for it.

In the 1920s a patient presented herself to the French psychiatrist Joseph Capgras with what the latter identified as an unusual form of the Cotard delusion, a mental illness characterised by a radical sense of disconnection from the self. Some Cotard sufferers think parts of their body have vanished; some think they’re dead and rotting. Capgras’s patient felt that she wasn’t there at all, and gave the name Madame Zero to the non-being who had replaced her.

With this, a lot becomes clear about Hall’s second collection of short fiction. So many of these stories are about characters who have vanished, become strange to themselves or stepped out of the centres of their own lives.

The displacements are literal, figurative and, occasionally, fantastical. In the opening story, “Mrs Fox”, for which Hall won the BBC National Short Story Prize in 2013, a woman who “dreams subterranean dreams, of forests, dark corridors and burrows, roots and earth” is out for a walk with her husband one morning when she transforms into a vixen. “She turns and smiles,” Hall writes, in language whose imagery edges close to horror. “Something is wrong with her face. The bones have been re-carved. Her lips are thin and the nose is a dark blade. Teeth small and yellow. The lashes of her hazel eyes have thickened…”

The story quietly updates David Garnett’s strange little novel Lady Into Fox from 1922, but its fascination with the wild – in humans, in nature, in the borders between the two – continues a theme that runs in Hall’s work from her debut novel Haweswater (2002) to her most recent, The Wolf Border (2015).

It finds an echo in “Evie”, the collection’s final piece, in which a married woman becomes wild in a different way, exhibiting cravings, confusion and promiscuity that first baffles then arouses her husband. Her radical changes, however (“She’d walked carelessly across the tripwires of their relationship, as though through a field of mines, as if immune”), turn out to have a dreadful neurological cause.

Other stories experiment with register, style and genre. Written in downbeat medicalese, “Case Study 2” takes the form of a psychiatrist’s report on a patient: a wild boy found on the moors who turns out to have been brought up by a secretive communal cult. As the therapist begins to “re-parent” her new charge, getting him to say “I” instead of “we” and teaching him about property and possessions, Hall drip-feeds hints about the community he has left, whose slogan “All of one mind and all free” soon acquires a threatening resonance.

The points in this story about connection and selfhood give it an aspect of fable, but at root it’s a weird tale; take away the leached and wistful tone and the doctorly equivocations and we might be in The Twilight Zone. Hall has written counterfactuals and science fiction before: her novel The Carhullan Army imagined life among a group of armed feminist rebels in dystopian Britain, while The Wolf Border, written before the referendum but set in a newly independent Scotland, looks more alternative-historical by the day. 

Similar impulses power several of the stories here. “Theatre 6” portrays a Britain living under “God’s Jurisdiction”, in which the Department for the Protection of Unborn Children insists all pregnancies be carried to term. Other imaginary societies are evoked in “Later, His Ghost”, a haunting piece of cli-fi about a Britain devastated by high winds (originally published in this magazine); and in “One in Four”, a four-page chiller set in the middle of a flu pandemic. Hall is no world-building nerd, however. Her focus is always on the strangely displaced characters (harried anaesthetist, obsessed survivor, suicidal biochemist) at the stories’ heart.

A microclimate of unease also hangs over the stories in which nothing weird is visibly going on. In “Luxury Hour”, a new mother returning from the lido meets the man with whom she once had a secret affair; going home, she imagines her child “lying motionless in the bath while the minder sat on a stool, wings unfurled, monstrous”. “Goodnight Nobody” evokes the crowded inner world of Jem, an Eighties child with a ThunderCats obsession (but her mum works in a mortuary, and the neighbour’s dog has just eaten a baby…). And “Wilderness”, my favourite from this collection, conjures stark prickling fear from its description of a woman with vertigo crossing a creaking viaduct in South Africa: “The viaduct was floating free, and sailing on the wind. It was moving into the valley, into the river’s mouth. It was going to hit the hillside, and heave and tip and buckle.”

These aren’t particularly comforting stories; they’re fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment, told by or featuring characters who are frequently incomprehensible to themselves. But their poise, power and assurance are very striking indeed. 

Madame Zero
Sarah Hall
Faber & Faber, 179pp, £12.99

Photo: Nadav Kander
The Tories play Game of Thrones while the White Walkers from Brussels advance
July 23rd, 2017, 06:35 PM

The whole premise of the show is a pretty good metaphor for the current state of British politics.

If you’re a fan of asking “who’s that, then?” and “is that the one who killed the other one’s brother?”, I bring great news. Game of Thrones is back for a seventh series. Its vast assortment of characters was hard enough to keep track of before half of them got makeovers. But now the new Queen Cersei has reacted to the arrival of the long winter by investing heavily in the kind of leather ball gowns sold by goth shops in Camden, and Euron Greyjoy, once a fairly bland sailor, has come back as a Halloween costume version of Pacey from Dawson’s Creek, all eyeliner and epaulettes.

The show’s reliance on British character actors is the only thing keeping me vaguely on top of the cast list: what’s Diana Rigg up to these days in Highgarden? And what about that guy who was in Downton Abbey that time, who now has the scaly arms? (Luckily, the next thing I watched after the Game of Thrones series premiere was the first two episodes of the revived Twin Peaks, which put my confusion into perspective. There, Agent Cooper spent most of his time talking to a pulsating bladder attached to one of those fake trees you get from Ikea when your landlord won’t let you have real plants.)

The day-to-day business of Game of Thrones has always been power – answering the question of who will sit on the Iron Throne, forged by Aegon the Conqueror from the swords of his defeated enemies. But its backdrop is a far bigger threat: the arrival of a winter that will last many years, and the invasion of an army of the undead.

That might seem like an unkind way to think about Michel Barnier and his fellow Brexit negotiators – inexorably marching towards us, briefing papers in hand, while Liam Fox frantically rings a bell at the entrance to the Channel Tunnel – but nonetheless, the whole premise of Game of Thrones is a pretty good metaphor for the current state of British politics.

The current internal Conservative struggle for power might be vicious but it is at least familiar to its contestants; they know which weapons to deploy, which alliances are vital, who owes them a favour. Meanwhile, the true challenge facing every one of them is too frightening to contemplate.

In 2013, this magazine celebrated the early success of the show with a cover depicting one of our terrifying painted mash-ups: “The Tory Game of Thrones.” Our casting has been strangely vindicated. George Osborne was our Jaime Lannister – once the kind of uncomplicated bastard who would push a child out of a window but now largely the purveyor of waspish remarks about other, worse characters. Our Cersei was Theresa May, who spent the early seasons of The Cameron Era in a highly visible but underwritten role. Now, she has just seized power, only to discover herself beset by enemies on all sides. (Plus, Jeremy Corbyn as the High Sparrow would quite like her to walk penitently through the streets while onlookers cry “shame!”)

Michael Gove was our Tyrion Lannister, the kind of man who would shoot his own father while the guy was on the loo (or run a rival’s leadership campaign only to detonate it at the last minute). Jeremy Hunt was Jon Snow, slain by the brotherhood of the Night Shift at A&E, only in this case still waiting for resurrection.

The comparison falls down a bit at Boris Johnson as Daenerys Targaryen, as the former London mayor has not, to my knowledge, ever married a horse lord or hired an army of eunuchs, but it feels like the kind of thing he might do.

We didn’t have David Davis on there – hated by the old king, David Camareon, he was at the time banished to the back benches. Let’s retrospectively appoint him Euron Greyjoy, making a suspiciously seductive offer to Queen Cersei. (Philip Hammond is Gendry, in that most of the country can’t remember who he is but feel he might turn out to be important later.)

That lengthy list shows how Conservative infighting suffers from the same problem that the Game of Thrones screenwriters wrestle with: there are so many characters, and moving the pieces round the board takes up so much time and energy, that we’re in danger of forgetting why it matters who wins. In the books, there is more space to expound on the politics. George R R Martin once said that he came away from The Lord of The Rings asking: “What was Aragorn’s tax policy?” (The author added: “And what about all these orcs? By the end of the war, Sauron is gone but all of the orcs aren’t gone – they’re in the mountains. Did Aragorn pursue a policy of systematic genocide and kill them? Even the little baby orcs, in their little orc cradles?”)

Martin’s fantasy vision also feels relevant to the Tories because its power struggles aren’t about an “endless series of dark lords and their evil minions who are all very ugly and wear black clothes”. Instead, everyone is flawed. In Westeros, as in the Conservative Party, it can be difficult to decide who you want to triumph. Sure, Daenerys might seem enlightened, but she watched her brother have molten gold poured down his throat; plucky Arya Stark might tip over from adorable assassin into full-blown psychopath. Similarly, it’s hard to get worked up about the accusation that Philip Hammond said that driving a train was so easy “even a woman” could do it, when David Davis marked his last leadership campaign by posing alongside women in tight T-shirts reading “It’s DD for me”.

The only big difference from the show is that in real life I have sympathy for Barnier and the White Walkers of Brussels. Still, maybe it will turn out that the undead of Game of Thrones are tired of the Seven Kingdoms throwing their weight around and are only marching south to demand money before negotiating a trade deal? That’s the kind of plot twist we’re all waiting for.

Photo: Getty
What happened when a couple accidentally recorded two hours of their life
July 22nd, 2017, 06:35 PM

The cassette tape threw Dan and Fiona into a terrible panic.

If the Transformers series of movies (Transformers; Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen; Transformers: Dark of the Moon; Transformers: Age of Extinction; and Transformers: the Last Knight) teach us anything, it is that you think your life is going along just fine but in a moment, with a single mistake or incident, it can be derailed and you never know from what direction the threat will come. Shia LaBeouf, for example, thinks everything is completely OK in his world – then he discovers his car is a shape-shifting alien.

I once knew a couple called Dan and Fiona who, on an evening in the early 1980s, accidentally recorded two hours of their life. Fiona was an English teacher (in fact we’d met at teacher-training college) and she wished to make a recording of a play that was being broadcast on Radio 4 about an anorexic teenager living on a council estate in Belfast. A lot of the dramas at that time were about anorexic teenagers living on council estates in Belfast, or something very similar – sometimes they had cancer.

Fiona planned to get her class to listen to the play and then they would have a discussion about its themes. In that pre-internet age when there was no iPlayer, the only practical way to hear something after the time it had been transmitted was to record the programme onto a cassette tape.

So Fiona got out their boom box (a portable Sony stereo player), loaded in a C120 tape, switched on the radio part of the machine, tuned it to Radio 4, pushed the record button when the play began, and fastidiously turned the tape over after 60 minutes.

But instead of pushing the button that would have taped the play, she had actually pushed the button that activated the built-in microphone, and the machine captured, not the radio drama, but the sound of 120 minutes of her and Dan’s home life, which consisted solely of: “Want a cup of tea?” “No thanks.” And a muffled fart while she was out of the room. That was all. That was it.

The two of them had, until that moment, thought their life together was perfectly happy, but the tape proved them conclusively wrong. No couple who spent their evenings in such torpidity could possibly be happy. Theirs was clearly a life of grinding tedium.

The evidence of the cassette tape threw Dan and Fiona into a terrible panic: the idea of spending any more of their evenings in such bored silence was intolerable. They feared they might have to split up. Except they didn’t want to.

But what could they do to make their lives more exciting? Should they begin conducting sordid affairs in sleazy nightclubs? Maybe they could take up arcane hobbies such as musketry, baking terrible cakes and entering them in competitions, or building models of Victorian prisons out of balsa wood? Might they become active in some kind of extremist politics?

All that sounded like a tremendous amount of effort. In the end they got themselves a cat and talked about that instead. 

Photo: Getty
Fasting and Feasting: the eccentric life of food writer Patience Gray
July 22nd, 2017, 06:35 PM

Journalist Adam Federman clearly venerates his subject, and his research is overwhelmingly diligent. 

It is hard, these days, to open a food magazine or a news­paper’s colour supplement without finding an article extolling the charm of foraging. So fashionable has the Instagram-friendly pursuit become that the botanist James Wong recently  wrote of his alarm at finding pictures of food – often published on blogs proclaiming the evils of sugar, gluten and dairy – prettily decorated with flowers of extreme toxicity: narcissus, catharanthus, lantana and rhododendron.

The food writer Patience Gray loved narcissi, whose springtime appearance on Naxos she described in her 1989 account of a year spent on the Greek island, Ring Doves and Snakes; but she would have known better than to use them as a garnish. Her passionate interest in foraged and seasonal food, which began during her wartime years spent in a primitive cottage in Sussex, where she pursued a scholarly interest in edible fungi, developed over the many decades during which she lived with her partner, the sculptor Norman Mommens, in some of the remotest parts of the Mediterranean.

On Naxos, in Carrara in Tuscany and for the last three decades of their life together at Spigolizzi, a masseria (farmhouse) in Apulia, Gray and Mommens found a way of life still governed by the elemental rhythms of sowing and growing, feasting and fasting – rhythms they adopted and incorporated into the practice of their work. “Métier” was a talismanic term for Gray.

“It sometimes seems as if I have been rescuing a few strands from a former and more diligent way of life, now being fatally eroded by an entirely new set of values,” she wrote in Honey from a Weed (1986), her evocative fusion of memoir and cookbook. “As with students of music who record old songs which are no longer sung, soon some of the things I record will also have vanished.”

Patience was one of a formidable cohort of female writer-cooks whose celebrations of food in muscular, elegant prose sprang from the privations of the Second World War. A contemporary of Elizabeth David, M F K Fisher and Julia Child, she wrote just three cookery books, only two of which were published in her lifetime: the bestselling Plats du Jour (1957), co-written with Primrose Boyd and warily subtitled “Foreign Food”, and the eclectic Honey from a Weed. The Centaur’s Kitchen, a book of Mediterranean recipes written in 1964 for the Chinese cooks of the Blue Funnel shipping line, was posthumously published in 2005. She also wrote two wayward volumes of memoir: Ring Doves and Snakes and Work Adventures Childhood Dreams (1999).

Despite this comparative reticence (she wrote bitterly in Work Adventures Childhood Dreams of her mother, whom she accused of valuing only published work: “But Patience, is there anything you have written that is actually in print?”), the publication of Honey from a Weed turned her into a celebrity, and the austere household at Spigolizzi, devoid of electricity, telephone or sanitation, became a place of pilgrimage for such keen food fanciers as Paul Levy (the co-author of The Official Foodie Handbook) and the late Derek Cooper of BBC Radio 4’s Food Programme. As her biographer, Adam Federman, remarks, “A full account of her remarkable life is long overdue.”

Gray divided her adult life into two parts: before 1962, when she began living with Norman Mommens, and after. On either side of that meeting her life was eventful. Of her upper-middle-class upbringing she wrote, “I have listened to other people’s accounts of their happy childhoods with sadness mingled with disbelief.”

Educated at Queen’s College in London (where Unity Mitford was a contemporary) and the London School of Economics, she worked for the designer F H K Henrion on the agricultural and country pavilions at the Festival of Britain, and had three children by Thomas Gray, an elusive  married “artist-designer” whose name she took.

Having left him, she won a competition to become the women’s editor of the Observer. Sacked after three years (by the paper’s new features editor George Seddon, under whom things “became dull, more serious”), she “began a different and more creative life”, sharing and recording the ancient traditions of seasonal food production and preparation of the communities among which she occupied an ambiguous position as both participant and observer until her death in 2005, aged 87.

Federman – a journalist, academic and “former line cook, bread baker and pastry chef” – clearly venerates his subject, and his research is overwhelmingly diligent. While Gray possessed the sharp observing eye, selective memory and comic timing of an instinctive writer, Federman is dogged and respectful.

His book is dutifully strewn with the names of Gray’s wide acquaintance, but he lacks the gift of characterisation and conveys little impression of their personalities. Even Gray, so vivid a presence in her own books, seems oddly muted in Federman’s portrait (though he gives a lively account of her exhilaratingly awful behaviour at her daughter’s wedding).

For admirers of Patience Gray’s remarkable prescience in anticipating what has become known as the “Slow Food” movement, Federman’s exhaustively detailed biography will be a valuable resource. But for those who long for a flavour of her personality – as pungent and earthy as the dishes she recorded – it is best read with a copy of Honey from a Weed to hand. 

Fasting and Feasting: the Life of Visionary Food Writer Patience Gray
Adam Federman
Chelsea Green, 384pp, £20

Why I'll miss Sean Spicer, the tragic hero who couldn't cope with Trump
July 22nd, 2017, 06:35 PM

He was all of us when we have a sociopath for a boss.

From the first day he walked up to the White House press podium, in his ill fitting suit like an intern on his first day in the office, my heart went out to Sean Spicer. He did that classic thing you do when you have a very strong brief from your new boss and no idea what you're doing. He went completely overboard. Donald Trump’s inauguration crowd wasn't only huge, contrary to actual photo, video and eye witness reports, it was exceptionally huge. In fact, it was the biggest in history. Period!

We all had the same thought. This guy? This is who you pick to be White House press secretary? He crashed on to the scene all stutters and swivel eyes and redundant suit material. It was a fitting debut for the Trump’s administration.  

It was the start of a show that would give us Sean Spicer’s ABCs, a montage that poked fun at his tendency to mispronounce words and foreign leaders’ names. His greatest hits include saying "sometimes we can disagree with the facts". He brought on to the stage two piles of paper, one large and one small, pointing to the larger one as evidence of what "big government does", like he was on Sesame Street showing the kids the difference between BIG and SMALL. He said even "someone as despicable as Hitler didn’t sink to using chemical weapons". Just face palm, head-desk stuff everyday. His press briefings descended into laughter from the press and cries "oh come on Sean. Sean??" as he stormed off in the middle of a briefing.

But somehow, you couldn’t get mad at him. Or mad enough. Sean Spicer is that man who collapses late into the meeting he is supposed to be leading, sweating, nervous, spilt coffee down his tie and a distinct air of having stress-induced heartburn, before overcompensating for it by talking over everyone and throwing his weight around. More than anything, Spicer just seemed scared. His bursts of irritation and anger masking a deep seated sense of inadequacy probably much exacerbated by Trump reportedly chewing him out everytime he didn't come across as slick enough.  

Despite working for a dishonest and dissembling White House, Spicer never felt like the actual bully. He was the bullied. The kid who wanted in with the big boys and did their bidding but actually wasn't that bad inside so never did it with much effect. Indeed, he was all of us when we have a sociopath for a boss, a recent promotion, and a mortgage. All of us when just trying to get through the day when we don’t believe what we’re selling and are crippled by impostor syndrome. He was a tragic hero. Someone who just wanted to be taken seriously but somehow had missed out on all the genes that would enable that. The man who shoveled elephant excrement at the Big Top but stuck with it because he wanted to work in show business. A modern day clown who hated people laughing at him and cried after the show. And then there was Melissa McCarthy’s Saturday Night Live rendition which drove the final nail in the coffin of his hope to ever develop any gravitas. But it was as affectionate as it was brutal.

None of this excuses any of his complicity of course. I over embellish for effect. He went out there and lied day in and day out, but as his tenure went on, his suits got better, but one felt that he wasn’t coping. People who could work for Donald Trump and not have a nervous breakdown probably fall into two camps; those who agree with him and all his tactics, and those who don’t but are careerists. To be in the latter and be able to sleep at night requires a pretty high functioning ability to compartmentalise and, let’s be honest - kill your soul.

In a recent interview, Tom Ricks, the veteran journalist said:

"It's a crushing burden to be in political power in Washington these days, and you see people almost lose their souls. I think Sean Spicer, the president's spokesman in recent weeks has been pushed almost to the edge of a nervous breakdown from his public appearance. And he's kind of lost a big part of his soul, and I think that's true of some other people. And watching H.R. McMaster, an officer I do admire, over the last few weeks, I feel like I've seen him come out and give up a slice of his soul a few times. And I wonder how many more times he can do that before he just says I am becoming part of the problem, not part of the solution here."

That’s what it felt Spicer was doing everytime he came on. Giving up a slice of his soul. This might be a charitable explanation and he’s just really bad at his job. But when Sarah Huckabee Sanders began job sharing with him, it looked like her relative competence was less attributable to the fact that she was a better press secretary, and more that she was a soulless stone cold liar who felt no dissonance.

As Anthony Scaramucci came onto the podium to accept his position as White House Communications Director, the appointment that Spicer allegedly resigned over, it was clear that it could get a lot worse than Spicer. Scaramucci put on a sickening display where he said he "loved" and was "loyal" to the president about ten times, as Huckabee, now fully wearing the late Sean Spicer’s shoes as White House Press Secretary, looked on dead-eyed from the sidelines.

Sean Spicer still has a chance to completely blacken his name and lose any fondness he may have fostered by leaving the White House, joining the cable TV circuit  and continuing to shill for the Trump administration. This is a highly probably scenario. But until then, here’s to Sean Spicer. You were the best White House press secretary ever. Period!

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Out with the old: how new species are evolving faster than ever
July 22nd, 2017, 06:35 PM

A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of diversification, as well as extinction.

Human population growth, increased consumption, hunting, habitat destruction, pollution, invasive species and now climate change are turning the biological world on its head. The consequence is that species are becoming extinct, perhaps faster than at any time since the dinosaurs died out 66 million years ago. This is an inconvenient truth.

But there are also convenient truths. Britain has gained about 2,000 new species over the past two millennia, because our predecessors converted forests into managed woodlands, orchards, meadows, wheat fields, roadsides, hedgerows, ponds and ditches, as well as gardens and urban sprawl, each providing new opportunities.

Then we started to transport species deliberately. We have the Romans to thank for brown hares and the Normans for rabbits. In the 20th century, ring-necked parakeets escaped from captivity and now adorn London’s parks and gardens.

Climate warming is bringing yet more new species to our shores, including little egrets and tree bumblebees, both of which have colonised Britain in recent years and then spread so far north that I can see them at home in Yorkshire. Convenient truth No 1 is that more species have arrived than have died out: most American states, most islands in the Pacific and most countries in Europe, including Britain, support more species today than they did centuries ago.

Evolution has also gone into overdrive. Just as some species are thriving on a human-dominated planet, the same is true of genes. Some genes are surviving better than others. Brown argus butterflies in my meadow have evolved a change in diet (their caterpillars now eat dove’s-foot cranesbill plants, which are common in human-disturbed landscapes), enabling them to take advantage of a warming climate and spread northwards.

Evolution is a second convenient truth. Many species are surviving better than we might have expected because they are becoming adapted to the human-altered world – although this is not such good news when diseases evolve immunity to medicines or crop pests become resistant to insecticides.

A third convenient truth is that new species are coming into existence. The hybrid Italian sparrow was born one spring day when a male Spanish sparrow (the “original” Mediterranean species) hitched up with a female house sparrow (which had spread from Asia into newly created farmland). The descendants of this happy union live on, purloining dropped grains and scraps from the farms and towns of the Italian peninsula. Some of those grains are wheat, which is also a hybrid species that originated as crosses between wild grasses in the Middle East.

This is not the only process by which new species are arising. On a much longer time scale, all of the species that we have released on thousands of islands across the world’s oceans and transported to new continents will start to become more distinct in their new homes, eventually separating into entirely new creatures. The current rate at which new species are forming may well be the highest ever. A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of great diversification on Earth, as well as a time of extinction.

The processes of ecological and evolutionary change that brought all of Earth’s existing biological diversity into being – including ourselves – is continuing to generate new diversity in today’s human-altered world. Unless we sterilise our planet in some unimagined way, this will continue. In my book Inheritors of the Earth, I criss-cross the world to survey the growth in biological diversity (as well as to chart some of the losses) that has taken place in the human epoch and argue that this growth fundamentally alters our relationship with nature.

We need to walk a tightrope between saving “old nature” (some of which might be useful) and facilitating what will enable the biological world to adjust to its changed state. Humans are integral to Earth’s “new nature”, and we should not presume that the old was better than the new.

“Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature Is Thriving in an Age of Extinction” by Chris D Thomas is published by Allen Lane

Photo: Getty
Uncommon People sweeps you along as if you were trapped in a mosh pit
July 22nd, 2017, 06:35 PM

Author David Hepworth has acquired deep reservoirs of knowledge, and a towering stack of anecdotes.

First, a warning. It is perhaps best not to tackle David Hepworth’s work if you are the argumentative sort. He presents the central themes of his books in a manner that does not encourage discussion or debate: for maximum enjoyment, you should allow yourself to be swept along as if trapped in a surging, front-of-stage mosh pit.

Having argued persuasively in his last book that 1971 was the definitive year in the history of rock, Hepworth now takes as his theme the death of the rock star, killed off, like so many things that we thought would be part of the landscape for ever, by the arrival of the “mystique-destroying internet”. The end of physical product – Hepworth comes from a generation that spent hours gazing lovingly at album sleeves, seeking clues about the lifestyles and personalities of the performers – and the arrival of social media were the primary factors that led to the extinction of this breed of people whose names once formed the world’s cultural lingua franca. We still have global superstars in pop music but, he argues, the likes of Adele, Justin Bieber and Kanye West are not rock stars, whatever the last of these may think. Music has become “just another branch of the distraction business”.

Starting with the day Little Richard recorded “Tutti Frutti” in September 1955, Hepworth leads us through the next four decades, choosing one significant day – often only important in retrospect – each year in the life of an artist. Some obvious candidates (Bob Dylan, the Beatles) make more than one appearance, but there are some surprising inclusions, too. It is typically provoking of Hepworth to bring the curtain down on the rock era as early as 1995 and make his last subject not Damon Albarn or Noel Gallagher but an American software nerd. Marc Andreessen, the developer of an early web browser, helped to usher in an age in which “smart young people looked on and dreamed about being tech stars in the way the previous generation had dreamed about being rock stars”.

The last man to measure up to Hepworth’s rock star definition was Kurt Cobain, who killed himself in 1994. Cobain was a fan who unwittingly and unwillingly became an icon and could not cope with the consequences. His suicide note was “like a reader’s letter to a music paper”.

Though Hepworth writes with conviction, his manner is not high-handed or dictatorial. He is not a rock historian in the mould of, say, the Elvis Presley biographer Peter Guralnick or the Beatles chronicler Mark Lewisohn: you are not lost in admiration at the weight and depth of his research. In a lifetime’s devotion to the music and several decades as a journalist and TV presenter, he has acquired deep reservoirs of knowledge and a towering stack of anecdotes. He deploys this weaponry wisely and writes in an easy, fluid style. If he ever turned his hand to thrillers, you can bet they would be page turners.

The best chapters are those in which Hepworth’s choice is surprising, or he approaches it tangentially. His subject for 1978, for instance, is Ian Dury, whose album New Boots and Panties!! sold in its hundreds of thousands, making Dury – disabled after contracting polio as a child – one of the most unlikely success stories in pop. Dury was a complex character who could, like so many of the book’s subjects, be deeply unpleasant. “He had managers,” Hepworth writes, “but he did the manipulation himself.” Earlier in the decade, Hepworth revisits David Bowie’s fabled final Ziggy Stardust show at Hammersmith Odeon in July 1973, at which the singer announced, rather prematurely as it turned out, his retirement as a performer. It is a typical Hepworth flourish to reveal that the gig was not sold out and that the tour had been losing money. Occasionally, a chapter works less well because anyone with a reasonable rock library or access to BBC4 will know, for instance, that Bob Dylan was largely a self-created persona, that Brian Wilson had a breakdown under the pressure of sustaining his genius or that the launch of the Apple corporation in 1968 marked the beginning of the end for the Beatles.

But he is adept at identifying a watershed moment: the growth of teenage consumerism in 1950s America being an essential component of the birth of rock’n’roll; the making of the Beatles coming at the moment they recruited Ringo Starr; Live Aid launching the era of the now-ubiquitous outdoor mega-events; rock wrestling with its midlife crisis in the late 1980s.

On the odd occasion, the idea begins to flag in a way that did not happen in Hepworth’s 1971: Never a Dull Moment – 40 years being a trickier time span than 12 months. But you stick with the book because Hepworth is an inspired phrase maker. He is witty on the seamier side of touring (“They say the only touring musician who doesn’t want sex is the touring musician who’s just had some”), wise on Elvis Presley at the time of his death (“Nobody took being the King more seriously than the King”) and wince-inducingly sharp on Madonna in her early-1990s pomp: “Publicity was not a by-product of what Madonna did, it was the product itself.”

Uncommon People: the Rise and Fall of the Rock Stars
David Hepworth
Bantam Press, 368pp, £20

Photo: Alamy
The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump
July 22nd, 2017, 06:35 PM

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

Photo: Getty
The Negroni fools no one – it’s easy to make and contains nothing but booze
July 21st, 2017, 06:35 PM

It is the colour of danger, a red rag to anyone jaded by cocktail-world bull.

The cocktail is designed to lie about its origins; no wonder it reached its apogee during Prohibition, which forced everyone with an unrepentant thirst to lie about their cravings. Even today, when only extreme youth, religious belief or personal inclination prevents a person from draining the bar dry, the cocktail continues its career of dishonesty. It hides ingredients or methods. It provides a front for poor-quality booze. And it often dissolves, within its inscrutable depths, mountains of sugar, enabling drinkers to pose as sophisticates while downing something that tastes like a soft drink – to get drunk without leaving the playpen.

This is why I love the Negroni, which fools no one. It is easy to make and contains nothing but pure booze. Despite being a third sweet vermouth, it isn’t saccharine: the other two thirds, equal measures of gin and Campari, may have something to do with this. And it is the colour of danger, a red rag to anyone jaded by cocktail-world bull.

They say it was invented in Florence at the request of a Count Negroni, who wanted a drink unsullied by club soda – a drink stiff enough to get a man back on a bucking horse, perhaps, since this Count may have been a rodeo rider. I prefer to believe that the Count, if Count he was, came in, tossed down enough strong liquor to start telling stories about his American adventures, and, when he finally staggered out into the night, the exasperated bartender poured three straight shots into a single glass and baptised this wondrous reviver in grateful homage to the fabulist who had inspired it.

In a former glue factory a very long way from Florence or America, the East London Liquor Company now makes very good gin – Batches One and Two, the former tannic with Darjeeling as well as cassia bark, pink grapefruit peel, and coriander seeds; the latter redolent of savoury, bay, thyme and lavender. Transforming these plants into excellent alcohol seems an improvement on boiling down horses for adhesive, and the company also makes superb Negronis from Batch Two.

We sit outside, in a carpark made marginally more glamorous by border boxes of Batch Two botanicals, and marvel at the transformation of this grimy part of East London, next door to a park intended to give Victorian working men brief respite from lives all too lacking in myth or fantasy. It is a reincarnation at least as miraculous as the transformation of three strong and entirely unalike spirits into the delectable harmony of the Negroni. The sun shines; a fountain plashes. Nuts and charcuterie arrive. All is right with the world.

I leave my herbaceous bower and dangerously pleasing drink for a peek at the large copper distillery behind the bar, walking in past the fountain, a whimsical stone construction that pours vermilion liquid into two, tiered basins topped by a chubby putto clutching a rather reluctant fish.

And then I stop. And double back. Vermilion liquid? It is, indeed, a Negroni fountain. There are even slices of orange floating in the basin. I dip a finger: the taste is slightly metallic but still undeniably that potent mixture of booze, botanicals, bitterness, and just a hint of sweetness. A streak of citrus from the orange slices. It turns out that the world’s most straightforward cocktail lends itself to a decadent neo-Renaissance fantasy. There’s a message here, one forthright as a temperance tract: without imagination, we would have no lies – but no Negronis, either.

Photo: Tashphotography / Stockimo / Alamy
Why is “Despacito” so popular?
July 21st, 2017, 06:35 PM

An investigation.

It’s the first (mostly) Spanish language song to nab the Billboard Hot 100 top spot since 1996’s “Macarena”. It’s topped the charts in 45 different countries, from Austria to Japan to Uruguay. Its (quite rubbish) video has garnered almost three billion views on YouTube. A video of a young girl dancing to it in public places has more than 69 million views. It’s been covered on the harpsichord. It’s even been discussed on Radio 4. And it’s now the most streamed song of all time with nearly five billion plays. First released back in January, Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s “Despacito” is indisputably the song of the summer.

Why?

When last year’s song of the summer, Drake’s One Dance, broke Spotify streaming records, critics observed that the record's combination of a superstar rapper and the “globalised” sound of the record, with its Nineties British pop, Afrobeat and Jamaican dancehall influences, attracted “an audience outside rap’s core demographics”.

“Despacito” has some of the same key elements. The song’s combination of styles (traditional guitar, reggaeton – itself a mix of Latin, Caribbean and mainstream pop – influences, rap verses, and catchy melody) and Spanish lyrics give it that “globalised” sound. Puerto Ricans Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee are already some of the most famous Latin stars in the world, while Justin Bieber’s appearance on the remix in May lent the song the level of mainstream popularity only a truly super-famous global artist can bring. (“Despacito” has also been helped by some bad press: Bieber fudging the Spanish lyrics on tour.)

But, in another sense, “Despacito” has a number of elements that work against it. “One Dance”, was noted as having a “vagueness” that is “perfectly suited to listening on repeat in the background” and “sits at the heart of a listening-activity Venn diagram”, as it “works for jogging, for driving, and at any point on a night out”. But “Despacito” is full of has heavy beats, vocals high in the mix, rapid and verbose lyrics, intricate guitar strumming, and even different but overlapping melodies.

Basically, it’s distracting. So distracting that more than 285,000 people shared a video of a girl dropping everything in the supermarket, restaurant and street to dance to it.

Instead, it has more in common with 2015’s song of the summer OMI’s “Cheerleader”. First released in May 2014, it was given a more globalised remix for international palates by German DJ  Felix Jaehn. After that, it was massive hit in Jamaica, streaming trends saw it become popular in Swedish markets (thanks, Spotify) spreading to European territories, until Simon Cowell snapped up the song for a UK release. As it peaked in the UK, it started to take over the US charts, too.

“Despacito” follows suit as a global earworm that is inherently danceable, one that makes you think of sun, sand, sweat and sex, even while you bore yourself to death on your Windows PC in an airless grey office in Farringdon.

Oh, and did I mention? It’s really, really catchy.

Picture: YouTube
Is Scottish Labour on the way back, or heading for civil war?
July 21st, 2017, 06:35 PM

There are signs of life, but also recriminations.

The extraordinary rise of the Scottish Tories and the collapse in SNP seat numbers grabbed most of the headlines in the recent general election. Less remarked on was the sudden, unexpected exhalation of air that came from what was thought to be the corpse of Scottish Labour.

In 2015, Labour lost 40 of its 41 Scottish seats as the SNP rocketed from six to 56, was wiped out in its Glaswegian heartlands, and looked to have ceded its place as the choice of centre-left voters – perhaps permanently – to the Nationalists. But while the electorate’s convulsion in June against the SNP’s insistence on a second independence referendum most benefited Ruth Davidson, it also served to reanimate Labour.

The six seats grabbed back (making a total of seven) included three in the West of Scotland, proving that the Nat stranglehold on Labour’s territory was not quite as secure as it had seemed. There is, it appears, life in the old dog yet.

Not only that, but the surprise success of Jeremy Corbyn across the UK has stiffened Labour’s spine when it comes to insisting that it, and not the SNP, is the rightful home of Scotland’s socialists.

Corbyn was largely kept south of the border during the election campaign – Kezia Dugdale, the leader at Holyrood, had supported Owen Smith’s leadership challenge. But in August, Corbyn will embark on a five-day tour of marginal SNP constituencies that Labour could potentially take back at the next election. The party has set a target of reclaiming 18 Scottish seats as part of the 64 it needs across Britain to win a majority at Westminster. The trip will focus on traditional areas such as Glasgow and Lanarkshire, where tiny swings would return seats to the People’s Party. Dugdale is no doubt hoping for some reflected glory.

Corbyn will present himself as the authentically left-wing choice, a leader who will increase public spending and invest in public services compared to the austerity of the Tories and the timidity of the SNP. “Labour remains on an election footing as a government-in-waiting, ready to end failed austerity and ensure that Scotland has the resources it needs to provide the public services its people deserve,” he said. “Unlike the SNP and the Tories, Labour will transform our economy through investment, insisting that the true wealth creators - that means all of us – benefit from it.”

The SNP has benefited in recent years from the feeling among many north of the border that Labour and the Tories were committed to differing shades of a similar economic programme, that was starving public services of cash and that paid little attention to Scottish desires or needs. But as the Nats’ spell in government in Edinburgh has worn on, first under Alex Salmond and now Nicola Sturgeon, with little being done to tackle the nation’s social problems, patience has started to run out.

Dugdale said yesterday that she “looked forward to joining Jeremy in August as we take our message to the people of Scotland”. That’s not a sentiment we would have heard from her before June. But it does raise the future spectacle of Davidson’s Tories battling for the centre and centre-right vote and Labour gunning for the left. The SNP, which has tried to be all things to all people, will have to make a choice – boasting that it is “Scotland’s Party” is unlikely to be enough.

The 20th anniversary of the referendum that delivered the Scottish Parliament is almost upon us. Then, Scottish Labour provided the UK and the Westminster government with figures of the stature of Gordon Brown, Robin Cook, Donald Dewar and George Robertson. That was a long time ago, and the decline in quality of Labour’s representatives both in London and Edinburgh since has been marked. The SNP’s decade of success has attracted much of the brightest new talent through its doors. Young Scots still seem to be set on the idea of independence. Labour has a credibility problem that won’t be easily shaken off.

But still, the body has twitched – perhaps it’s even sitting up. Is Scottish Labour on the way back? If so, is that down to the SNP’s declining popularity or to Corbyn’s appeal? And could Dugdale be a convincing frontwoman for a genuinely left-wing agenda?

There may be trouble ahead. Yesterday, the Scottish Labour Campaign for Socialism – whose convener, Neil Findlay MSP, ran Corbyn’s leadership campaign in Scotland – accused Dugdale of “holding Corbyn back” in June. A spokesperson for the group said: “While it’s great we won some seats back, it’s clear that the campaign here failed to deliver. While elsewhere we've seen people being enthused by ‘for the many, not the few’ we concentrated on the dispiriting visionless ‘send Nicola a message’ – and paid a price for that, coming third in votes and seats for the first time in a century. In Scotland we looked more like [former Scottish leader] Jim Murphy’s Labour Party than Jeremy Corbyn’s – and that isn’t a good look.”

While the group insists this isn’t intended as a challenge to Dugdale, that might change if Corbyn receives a rapturous reception in August. We’ll learn then whether Scotland is falling for the high-tax, high-spending pitch that seems to be working so well elsewhere, and whether Scottish Labour has jerked back to life only to find itself staring down the barrel of a civil war.

Photo: Getty
Linking Chester Bennington's suicide to Linkin Park's music is dangerous and irresponsible
July 21st, 2017, 06:35 PM

How we write and talk about suicide is a matter of life and death.

We are so wrong about suicide. What we want more than anything is for it to make sense. To turn the life of the victim into a good story, with all the narrative beats leading up to a satisfying conclusion in their death. No mess and no untidiness. That’s especially true when the person who has died by suicide is famous – someone on whom we are already used to writing our own meanings. We start to wind myths around them.

So when Linkin Park singer Chester Bennington apparently died by suicide on Thursday, this is what happened. People started looking for patterns, turning his work into a prelude to his suicide, even implying that his death brought greater meaning to Linkin Park’s tightly-wound songs. “Linkin Park star Chester Bennington’s hurt made beautiful music,” said one headline;  “Those lyrics […] are of course now extremely poignant,” remarked one obituary.

It should be obvious why it’s tacky to turn a human death into an intensifying filter for our own aesthetic responses. It’s perhaps less obvious, but more important, to understand why this is dangerous. Saying that Bennington’s suicide proves the worth of his music comes under the heading of “[promoting] the idea that suicide achieves results”, something the Samaritans warns against in its reporting guidelines. The reason for this warning is that such narratives contribute to the risk of “suicide contagion”, where other people attempt suicide in imitation of the reported act.

Two things make contagion an especially urgent issue here. Firstly, Bennington’s confessional lyrics mean his relationship with fans was always one of intense identification: for many, his words expressed their own most private and painful emotions, binding singer and listener in shared feeling. Secondly, Bennington himself may have been influenced by another suicide, with reports emphasising parallels between his death and that of Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell in May (and not, it must be said, emphasising them with much care for reporting guidelines).

“Suicide influence is strongest on those who are close to the victim in some way, or like them, in all meanings of the word,” writes Jennifer Michael Hecht in Stay, her thoughtful book on suicide as a social phenomenon. Bennington was a fan, a friend and a professional peer of Cornell’s. All the conditions for “closeness” were there – so why is there such carelessness about emphasising that same “closeness” between Bennington and his audience?

This is the truth about suicide: it is always a hideous accident, a terrible conjunction of urge and opportunity that tears through families and communities. There’s a temptation to think of suicide as a crime in which the only victim of violence is also the perpetrator (no mess and no untidiness), but this is so wrong. Those left behind are victims too. Exposure to suicide, whether through immediate bereavement or through media representations and reports, is a key risk factor in suicide attempts.

I suspect we would all feel better if suicide was an unstoppable reaction to uncontainable internal forces. Then, we’d have no collective responsibility. People like to share a quote from David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest where the author (who himself died by suicide) writes: “The person in whom Its [ie depression’s] invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise.”

But suicide is hardly inevitable. Ninety per cent of people who survive attempted suicide once will not die by suicide. What does that mean for those who complete suicide at first attempt? How many of them, if they hadn’t had the dumb luck to be unsaved or unsavable, would have gone on to want to live? Suicide is a theft from the future self who could have chosen to go on, as well as a theft from those left grieving.

You can see how impulsive suicide is by looking at how suicide rates fall and rise. When particular means of suicide are taken away – for example, the detoxification of household gas, or the restriction of sales of paracetamol, or the introduction of barricades on tube platforms – there are fewer suicides. Not fewer suicides by that method, but fewer suicides overall: there is little substitution. And when suicide is given extensive, sensationalist coverage, rates go up.

How we write and talk about suicide is a matter of life and death. What if Foster Wallace or Cornell or Bennington had been lucky and survived? Their work would be the same. Same greatness, same flaws. The happenstance of suicide adds nothing, only wounds, and the media is morally derelict when it suggests anything else. We should never be careless of each other or ourselves when our carelessness has mortal consequences. 

If you've been affected by any of the issues addressed in this piece you can call the Samaritans on the free helpline 116 123.

Photo: Getty
There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts
July 21st, 2017, 06:35 PM

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Getty
Disney's failure to find an Arab Princess Jasmine for Aladdin shows the dire state of diversity in film
July 21st, 2017, 06:35 PM

As a child in the late Nineties, I lived for Aladdin. Yet no actual Arabs or even Indians were involved in the cartoon.

Production on Disney’s new live-action Aladdin, directed by Guy Ritchie, was expected to begin this month, but the studio reportedly struggled to find actors for its lead roles. “Finding a male lead in his 20s who can act and sing has proven difficult,” the Hollywood Reporter claimed. “Especially since the studio wants someone of Middle-Eastern or Indian descent.”

The author described efforts to scout actors in the UK, India, Egypt and Abu Dhabi, which suggested a concerted effort on Disney’s part to cast non-white stars. However, many critics interpreted the rumoured casting difficulties as a sign that Ritchie might ultimately cast white actors in the roles of Aladdin and Jasmine. “It can’t be easy to cast a Middle Eastern actor as a terrorist but difficult to cast the same people in a leading role,” argued Rawan Eewshah in Allure, “or is this all a ploy to whitewash the characters?”

The hunt for Aladdin and Jasmine has become a global conversation on social media. In India, it has prompted collective eye-rolls considering the wealth of Bollywood actors trained in both acting and singing. Disney fans from across Europe, America, India and the Middle East have compiled long lists of suggestions drawn from Bollywood and Middle Eastern pop culture icons. Then there's the subset of criticism questioning the fact that Ritchie and the studio were casting Indian actors at all, given that the characters appear to be Arab.

In the event, most seemed happy with the announcement of Will Smith as the Genie, and the eventual decision to cast the Canadian-Egyptian Mena Massoud as Prince Ali. However, the decision to cast Naomi Scott, who is half Indian and half white, as Princess Jasmine, has caused further controversy, with many critics claiming that Disney should have cast an Arab actress.

This is not the first Aladdingate. Even in 1993, audiences were unhappy with the cartoon Aladdin’s portrayal of Arab culture. In his review of the film, Roger Ebert noted with frustration that most “of the Arab characters [had] exaggerated facial characteristics – hooked noses, glowering brows, thick lips – but Aladdin and the princess look like white American teenagers.”

In response to protests from the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, Walt Disney Studios agreed to change the offensive lyrics to the opening song “Arabian Nights” for the film’s 1993 home video release. The lyrics had referred to the story’s Middle Eastern setting as a “barbaric” land where “they’ll cut off your ear if they don’t like your face”. Former Disney executive Dick Cook defended the song, claiming that: “The irony in all of this is that this is the first movie in years where both the hero and heroine are Arabic, and both are obviously terrific role models, not just for Arabs but for everybody.”

As a kid in the late Nineties, I lived for Aladdin. I spent much of my childhood dressing up as Princess Jasmine, convinced that my own Indian culture was reflected in the film’s imagery and cultural symbolism. It is only in more recent years that I have come to terms with the fact that the extent of the depiction of Indian “culture” in the film is Jasmine’s pet tiger, Rajah.

In actuality, the 1992 animated film is a white dream about the Middle East, lazily conflated with India (the Sultan’s palace is based on the Taj Mahal). It may have its origins in an ancient Syrian folk tale, but it is now painfully clear to me that the film is essentially an original work by a group of white men with a distorted and disturbingly orientalist view of the monolithic “East”. 

Despite their story being set in the fictional Middle Eastern region of Agrabah, and despite the film's (human) characters all having Arab names, the voice cast of Disney’s original Aladdin movie is entirely white. No actual Arabs or even Indians were involved in the making of the film.

Hollywood’s diversity problem is so dire that grown men and women across three continents are arguing about the ethnic integrity of the cast of Aladdin, a children’s cartoon that a group of white people made about a Middle Eastern kingdom that doesn’t exist. Our one hotly contested property in Western pop culture is a children’s musical cartoon starring Robin Williams. Aladdin was, and still is, important to me and my Arab, South Asian and Muslim friends, however problematic the depiction. Jasmine was brown, just like we were (and are) – and sadly, that was enough.

No one* is daft enough to believe that Aladdin is any kind of credible mythology. But in terms of positive on-screen depictions of Middle Eastern and South Asian heritage and complexions, Aladdin is still as good as it gets. We are given so little time on-screen (and most of that time is taken up by portrayals of us as terrorists) that we are willing to settle for lazy cultural stereotypes and caricatures that erase our differences.

Of course, Middle Eastern and Indian cultures and people are not interchangeable. No one should treat them as such, from Disney to those making casting suggestions. As for me, I don’t believe that accurately casting Arab actors in the leading roles of the live-action remake is enough to correct the original Aladdin’s racist presentation of the Arab world as a “barbaric” region where “they will cut off your ear if they don’t like your face”. Still, it would have been a start.

*Except perhaps for the 41 per cent of Donald Trump supporters who said they were in favour of bombing Agrabah, the (fictional) homeland of Aladdin, in December 2015.

Picture: Disney
Every single line spoken by actor Harry Styles in the movie Dunkirk, evaluated
July 21st, 2017, 06:35 PM

Judging the actual speaking and acting the from teen icon.

When it was announced that Harry Styles had been cast in Dunkirk, most people assumed it was a Drew Barrymore in Scream sort of deal. A big name, who would be plastered over the posters, front and centre at promotional interviews, but given a barely-speaking part and probably killed off in the first five minutes. Not so! Not only does he not die early on, Harry has a very significant amount of time on screen in Dunkirk, and even more surprisingly, a lot of that time involves actual speaking and acting from the teen icon. In this action-heavy, dialogue-sparse film, he has more lines than most.

Of course, the most normal human response to this revelation is to list every single time he speaks in the film and evaluate every moment on a line-by-line basis. So here it is. Every single line spoken by actor Harry Styles in the movie Dunkirk, evaluated by a very impartial Harry Styles fan. Let’s go.

Obviously, this contains spoilers for Dunkirk.

“What’s wrong with your friend?”

It’s the first line, but it’s a goody. So nonchalant; so effortless; breezily accompanied by a mouthful of toast and jam. Curious, friendly – but with dangerous edge. A lurking threat. A shiver of accusation. This sets up Alex as a normal, if self-assured, bloke who also wants to be sure you’re not about to get him killed. A very strong debut – the kind of line that, if you didn’t know better, would make you think, “Hm, who’s this charismatic young guy”?

A cheer.

Solid 8/10 cheer, believe this guy has cheered before.

“You can’t leave us! Make some room!”

It’s only been ten minutes, but things have really kicked up a notch. Raspy, panicked, desperate, this line left my heart jumping for my poor sodden son. A triumph, and certainly one of Harry’s best lines.

“Hey!”

Here, Alex yells “Hey!” to get the attention of other soldiers, which turns into louder, repeated cries for their attention. I can find little wrong with this “Hey”, and indeed later “Hey”s, but I would not nominate it for an Oscar. This “Hey” is just fine.

“What’s that way?”

I believe that Alex does not, in fact, know what is that way. (It’s a boat.) 7/10.

“S’grounded!”

Alex has delivered the last three shouts with exactly the same intonation. This is good because normal people do not opt for variance in tone when desperately yelling at each other across the beach. I also appreciate the lack of enunciation here. Great work, Harry.

“’ow long’s that?”

I believe that Alex does not, in fact, know how long it will take for the tide to come in. (It’s about three hours.) 7/10.

“Poke yer head out, see if the water’s come in”

Alex is ramping things up a notch – this is authoritative, even challenging. Excellent pronunciation of “aht”, more great slurring.

“Talkative sod, aren’t ya?”

A big line, important for the growing hints that Alex is mistrustful of the silent soldier in their group. And yet not Harry’s absolute best. A little too much forced vowel for me.

“For fuck’s sake!”

Oh my God, we’re here now boys. It’s begun. The water’s not come in. Forget the high-explosive, Alex has only gone and dropped a bloody F-bomb, and Harry’s performance is actually stressful. What an about-turn. Delivered with spitting fury; the “for”, if there at all, almost inaudible; a dropped box clanging to the ground for extra impact. We know that Harry ad-libbed this (and a later) F-word, and this spontaneous approach is working. A truly superb go at doing some swearing. 10/10.

“Yeah but ’ow long?”

I would describe this delivery as “pained”. A little groan of fear hangs in the back. This is, as they say, the good shit.

“Why’d you leave your boat?”

This whispered anger suits Harry.

Some extreme shushing.

Definitely would shush.

“We have to plug it!”

Alex’s heart doesn’t seem really in plugging the bullet holes in the boat, despite the surface-level urgency of this delivery, probably because he doesn’t want to get shot. Nuance. I like it.

“Somebody needs to get off.”

A mic drop of a line, delivered with determined focus.

“I don’t need a volunteer. I know someone who ough’a get off.”

The way his cadence falls and his voice falters when as he reaches the word volunteer. It’s a sad, resigned, type of fear, the type of fear we expect from Rupert Grint’s Ron Weasley. Harry’s dropping clues that Alex doesn’t really want to be shoving anyone off a boat to their deaths. But then Alex steels himself, really packing a punch over that “ough’a”.

“This one. He’s a German spy.”

The momentum is building, Alex’s voice is getting breathier and breathier, panic is fluttering in his voice now. I’m living for each and every second of this, like a proud mother with a camcorder. You’re doing amazing, sweetie.

“He’s a focking Jerry!”

Go on my son! Harry’s voice is so high only dogs can hear him now. The mix of fear and aggression is genuinely convincing here, and more than ever it feels clear that you’re practically watching a group of schoolboys with guns scared out of their minds, desperate to go home, who might shoot each other dead at any second. This is undoubtedly the pinnacle of Harry’s performance.

“Have you noticed he hasn’t said a word? ’Cause I ’ave. Won’t speak English: if he does it’s in an accent’s thicker than sauerkraut sauce.”

This is, objectively, the silliest line in this film and maybe any film, ever, and I love it. Never before have the words “sauerkraut sauce” been uttered as a simile, or as a threat, and here, they are both. Inexplicably, it sort of works through Harry’s high-pitched voice and gritted teeth. My personal highlight of the entire movie.

“Tell me.”

Alex is going full antagonist. Whispered, aggressive, threatening. It is safe to say I am dead and deceased.

“Tell me, ‘Gibson’”.

Ugh, now with an added layer of mockery. I am dead, but also please kill me.

“A frog! A bloody frog! A cowardly, little queue-jumping frog. Who’s Gibson, eh? Some naked, dead Englishman lying out in that sand?”

Brexit Harry Styles is furious, and his accent is going a bit all over the place as a result.

“Maybe he killed him.”

Just-about-believably paranoid.

“How do we know?”

This is too close to the delivery Harry uses in this vine for me to take seriously, I’m deeply sorry about that.

“Well, we know who’s getting off.”

I believe that Alex does, in fact, know who is getting off. (It’s the French guy.) 7/10.

“Better ’im than me.”

I agree!!!!!

“Somebody’s gotta get off, so the rest of us can live.”

Empassioned, persuasive, fervent. When glimpsed in trailers, this moment made me think Alex would be sacrificing himself to save others. Not so! He just really, really wants to live. A stellar line, executed very well.

“Do you wanna volunteer?”

Good emoting. I believe the emotion used here is “disbelief”.

“Then this is the price!”

I believe the emotion used here is “desperation”.

“He’s dead, mate.”

So blunt, delivered with an awkward pity. A stand-out moment thanks to my high quality son Harold.

“We let you all down, didn’t we.”

Dahhn. Harry lets us know this is not even a question in Alex’s mind, its a fact. Poor depressed little Alex.

“That old bloke wouldn’t even look us in the eye.”

The weird thing (irony? joke?) here is that the old bloke is actually blind, not refusing to look them in the eye. Slightly bizarre, but Harry rolls with it with this relaxed approach to the word “bloke”.

“Hey! Where are we!”

Good God I love this rousing line. The bell chiming in the background, the violins stirring. There is something curiously British about this line. Something so, “‘What’s to-day?’ cried Scrooge”. Here, Harry is doing what he did best in the early one direction days - being a normal lad from a normal town whose life was made extraordinary even though he’s just, like, so totally normal.

“What station!”

I take it back, THIS is probably my favourite line of the whole movie. Purely because it sounds exactly like Harry Edward Styles on an average day, going about his business, asking what station he’s at. Alex who?

“Grab me one o’ them papers! Go on!”

Now, this, I love. Newcastle brown in hand, f’s dropped, a “go on” barely lacking a “my son”. Put a flat cap on the lad and hand him a chimney sweeping broom - we are in deliciously caricatured Brit territory.

“I can’t bear it. They’ll be spitting at us in the streets, if they’re not locked up waiting for the invasion.”

How rapidly joy turns to ashes in our mouths. One second so elated, with the nostalgic scent of home quivering in his nostrils, Alex is now feeling extremely sorry for himself (fair enough, to be honest). A fine “sad voice” here.

“I can’t look.”

The “sad voice” continues.

“Wha’??”

Hahahahahaha. Yes.

And with this very confused noise Harry Styles closes his debut film performance, which I would describe as extremely solid. Even if I am fuming that he didn’t get to die, beautifully, and at length. Well done Harold.

Photo: Warner Bros
UnHerd's rejection of the new isn't as groundbreaking as it seems to think
July 21st, 2017, 06:35 PM

Tim Montgomerie's new venture has some promise, but it's trying to solve an old problem.

Information overload is oft-cited as one of the main drawbacks of the modern age. There is simply too much to take in, especially when it comes to news. Hourly radio bulletins, rolling news channels and the constant stream of updates available from the internet – there is just more than any one person can consume. 

Luckily Tim Montgomerie, the founder of ConservativeHome and former Times comment editor, is here to help. Montgomerie is launching UnHerd, a new media venture that promises to pull back and focus on "the important things rather than the latest things". 

According to Montgomerie the site has a "package of investment", at least some of which comes from Paul Marshall. He is co-founder of one of Europe's largest hedge funds, Marshall Wace, formerly a longstanding Lib Dem, and also one of the main backers and chair of Ark Schools, an academy chain. The money behind the project is on display in UnHerd's swish (if slightly overwhelming) site, Google ads promoting the homepage, and article commissions worth up to $5,000. The selection of articles at launch includes an entertaining piece by Lionel Shriver on being a "news-aholic", though currently most of the bylines belong to Montgomerie himself. 

Guidelines for contributors, also meant to reflect the site's "values", contain some sensible advice. This includes breaking down ideas into bullet points, thinking about who is likely to read and promote articles, and footnoting facts. 

The guidelines also suggest focusing on what people will "still want to read in six, 12 or 24 months" and that will "be of interest to someone in Cincinnati or Perth as well as Vancouver or St Petersburg and Cape Town and Edinburgh" – though it's not quite clear how one of Montgomerie's early contributions, a defence of George Osborne's editorship of the Evening Standard, quite fits that global criteria. I'm sure it has nothing to do with the full page comment piece Montgomerie got in Osborne's paper to bemoan the deficiencies of modern media on the day UnHerd launched. 

UnHerd's mascot  – a cow – has also created some confusion, compounded by another line in the writing tips describing it as "a cow, who like our target readers, tends to avoid herds and behave in unmissable ways as a result". At least Montgomerie only picked the second-most famous poster animal for herding behaviour. It could have been a sheep. In any case, the line has since disappeared from the post – suggesting the zoological inadequacy of the metaphor may have been recognised. 

There is one way in which UnHerd perfectly embodies its stated aim of avoiding the new – the idea that we need to address the frenetic nature of modern news has been around for years.

"Slow news" – a more considered approach to what's going on in the world that takes in the bigger picture – has been talked about since at least the beginning of this decade.

In fact, it's been around so long that it has become positively mainstream. That pusher of rolling coverage the BBC has been talking about using slow news to counteract fake news, and Montgomerie's old employers, the Times decided last year to move to publishing digital editions at set points during the day, rather than constantly updating as stories break. Even the Guardian – which has most enthusiastically embraced the crack-cocaine of rolling web coverage, the live blog – also publishes regular long reads taking a deep dive into a weighty subject. 

UnHerd may well find an audience particularly attuned to its approach and values. It intends to introduce paid services – an especially good idea given the perverse incentives to chase traffic that come with relying on digital advertising. The ethos it is pitching may well help persuade people to pay, and I don't doubt Montgomerie will be able to find good writers who will deal with big ideas in interesting ways. 

But the idea UnHerd is offering a groundbreaking solution to information overload is faintly ludicrous. There are plenty of ways for people to disengage from the news cycle – and plenty of sources of information and good writing that allow people to do it while staying informed. It's just that given so many opportunities to stay up to date with what has just happened, few people decide they would rather not know.

Photo: Getty
You may call me a monster – but I'm glad that girl's lemonade stall got shut down
July 21st, 2017, 06:35 PM

What's wrong with hard-working public servants enforcing perfectly sensible regulations?

Who could fail to be moved by the widely shared tears of a five year old whose innocent lemonade stall was brutally shut down by evil bureaucrats? What sort of monster would not have their heartstrings tugged by the plaintive “I've done a bad thing” from a girl whose father tells us she “just wanted to put a smile on people's faces”?

Well me, actually.

There are half a million cases of food poisoning each year in the UK, and one of the reasons we have stringent controls on who can sell food and drink, especially in unsealed containers, is to try to cut those figures down. And street stalls in general are regulated because we have a system of taxation, rights and responsibilities in this country which underpins our functioning society. Regulation is a social and economic good.

It’s also pretty unfair to criticise the hard-working public servants who acted in this case for doing the job they are no doubt underpaid to do. For the council to say “we expect our enforcement officers to show common sense” as they cancelled the fine is all very well, but I’m willing to bet they are given precious little leeway in their training when it comes to who gets fined and who doesn’t. If the council is handing out apologies, it likely should be issuing one to its officers as well.

“But these are decent folk being persecuted by a nanny state,” I hear you cry. And I stand impervious, I’m afraid. Because I’ve heard that line a lot recently and it’s beginning to grate.

It’s the same argument used against speed cameras and parking fines. How often have you heard those caught out proclaim themselves as “law-abiding citizens” and bemoan the infringement of their freedom? I have news for you: if you break the speed limit, or park illegally, or indeed break health and safety or trading regulations, you are not a law-abiding citizen. You’re actually the one who’s in the wrong.

And rarely is ignorance an excuse. Speed limits and parking regulations are posted clearly. In the case of the now famous lemonade stand, the father in question is even quoted as saying “I thought that they would just tell us to pack up and go home.” So he knew he was breaking the rules. He just didn’t think the consequences should apply to him.

A culture of entitlement, and a belief that rules are for other people but not us, is a disease gripping middle Britain. It is demonstrated in many different ways, from the driver telling the cyclist that she has no right to be on the road because she doesn’t pay road tax (I know), to the father holding up his daughter’s tears to get out of a fine.

I know, I’m a monster. But hooray for the enforcers, I say.

Duncan Hothersall is the editor of Labour Hame

Getty
“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand
July 21st, 2017, 06:35 PM

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.


Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Photo: André Spicer
Chain of command: how the office lanyard took over corporate culture
July 21st, 2017, 06:35 PM

“I realised that I had to sort myself out with a new lanyard or I was going to struggle with my tribe.”

Compulsory lanyards arrived at BBC Broadcasting House in January 1991. Until then, a cursory flash of your staff card to the uniformed commissionaire would do. The Gulf War changed all that.

News trainees like me were pulled back from our regional radio attachments across the nation to serve the so-called Scud FM. In 12-hour shifts, we recorded CNN output on giant reel-to-reel tape machines, cutting packages to feed the rolling news. There were so many new faces, and the bead-chain lanyards gave a semblance of organisation.

Barely out of university, some of us were thinking: emergency civic responsibility. We had only seen lanyards worn in those 1970s and 1980s panic films such as WarGames. We were young outsiders getting access to the establishment.

Two 1990s television shows gave us our figureheads: Agent Dana Scully in The X-Files, flashing her FBI ID at every opportunity, and later Allison Janney’s C J Cregg in The West Wing, who embodied the idea of the female who had broken through, thoroughly qualified to run the operation. The lanyard was their symbol of arrival and as much of a challenge to the old order as their brightly coloured pantsuits were.

In a recent reassessment of the liberal love affair with The West Wing, Current Affairs magazine mocked fans who “think a lanyard is a talisman that grants wishes and wards off evil”. But it’s a good summary of how it felt then.

The novelist Bill Beverly, who grew up in the US Midwest, confirms my suspicion that the lanyard’s 1990s appeal lay in its historic gendered status: “They were for gym teachers and coaches. A lanyard for one’s whistle, for one’s stopwatch, for other elements of communication and control.”

Unlike military dog tags, which remained hidden, the lanyard was about publicly declaring that you belonged. Corporations, introducing them long before electronic scanner-gate entry became the norm, benefited from their identity as a symbol of cool access. Think of the Wayne’s World films, in which the backstage VIP lanyard is a celebratory badge of entry.

Over the years, lanyards have come to reveal so much about status. One charity worker, who asked to remain anonymous, has noticed who does and doesn’t wear them outside NHS hospitals: “I used to get the Tube into London Bridge and you’d see all the young doctors from Guy’s wearing their lanyards, quite proud. You never saw nurses or porters wearing theirs.”

At a big charity with compulsory lanyards for security cards, she saw tribal divisions: “The fundraising and facilities people all wore the work lanyard they gave you. But in public affairs and marketing and design, we all wore our own lanyards and turned our photo ID around. The electronic thing still worked, but no one could see your face. I realised within weeks that I had to sort myself out with a new lanyard or I was going to struggle with my tribe.”

When she moved to a small women’s charity, a more conventional rebellion emerged over corporate conformity: “I noticed they still needed an electronic card to get into the building. I was used to wearing a lanyard with one on, so I took a handful of nice ones in with me and gave them each one, and every one of the women just looked at me and went, ‘We’re not wearing that.’ It was the absolute opposite of command and control.”

At the Labour party conference last September, she saw how lanyards affected the mood. She observes that, as well as the standard union-sponsored lanyard, many members of Momentum were wearing a special lanyard with the Palestinian flag colours. “They really stuck out because they were like a party within a party,” she recalls. “Inside, they moved in packs. It was like the savannah – much more divided, even among the MPs.”

Journalists in the US have a tradition of bonding through novelty press cards on lanyards. One enterprising hack made them during the 1996 O J Simpson civil trial, with mugshots for each significant calendar date: Hallowe’en horror, Christmas, a Thanksgiving one featuring Simpson in a pilgrim hat with a turkey and the slogan “I’ll carve”.

Such small-scale rebellions over how we wear our lanyards are a distraction. Wearing our data around our necks, even displaying it boastfully, seems, in hindsight, a preparation for the normalisation of giving out our personal data online to corporations that can predict where we’ll go and how we’ll consume. If you have nothing to hide, what does it matter?

Twenty-six years on from my first encounter with it, in the new open-plan BBC Broadcasting House, lanyard-based security is much tighter for many reasons (including a break-in by a bunch of teens who found an unmanned door to the newsroom and wandered around posting rather giggly videos online).

There are still gestures of defiance. One colleague used to wear 20 or more lanyards collected from dozens of BBC buildings, twisted into a kind of giant wreath, like a Grand Prix winner.

My defeat lies in the way that I wear a second special labelled lanyard around my neck for the one day in the year that I might need access to a tiny, cordoned-off BBC area outside the Royal Albert Hall to record a line of voice track in an outside broadcast van.

Lanyards may have given us access but in accepting the myth of entry to august institutions, we are tagged and controlled for ever. 

Photo: Alamy
Boots sells lots of products used inappropriately – the morning after pill isn't one of them
July 21st, 2017, 06:35 PM

The aisles are filled with items to “fix” women's bodies, but somehow preventing pregnancy is irresponsible.

As a teenager in the early Nineties, I had a favourite food: Boots Shapers Meal Replacement Chocolate Bars. There was a plain milk version, one with hazelnuts, plus one with muesli which somehow seemed healthier. I alternated which one I’d have, but I’d eat one every day. And that was all I’d eat.

Because the packet said “meal”, I told myself it was fine. Why bother drawing fine distinctions between the thing in itself and the thing in itself’s replacement? Boots sold other such dietary substitutes – Slimfast, Crunch ‘n’ Slim – but the chocolate bars were my go-to lunchtime option. I was severely underweight and didn’t menstruate until I was in my twenties, but hey, I was eating meals, wasn’t I? Or things that stood in for them. Same difference, right?

I don’t blame Boots the chemist for my anorexia. The diet foods and pills they sold – and continue to sell – were not, they would no doubt argue, aimed at women like me. Nonetheless, we bought them, just as we bought laxatives, high-fibre drinks, detox solutions, anti-cellulite gels, bathroom scales, razor blades, self-hatred measured by the Advantage Point. Boots don’t say – in public at least – that their most loyal customer is the fucked-up, self-harming woman. Still, I can’t help thinking that without her they’d be screwed.

Whenever I enter a branch of Boots (and I’m less inclined to than ever right now), I’m always struck by how many products there are for women, how few for men. One might justifiably assume that only women’s bodies are in need of starving, scrubbing, waxing, moisturising, masking with perfume, slathering in serum, primer, foundation, powder, the works. Men’s bodies are fine as they are, thank you. It’s the women who need fixing.

Or, as the company might argue, it’s simply that women are their main target market. It’s hardly their fault if women just so happen to be more insecure about their bodies than men. How can it be irresponsible to respond to that need, if it helps these women to feel good? How can it be wrong to tell a woman that a face cream – a fucking face cream – will roll back the years? It’s what she wants, isn’t it? 

Yes, some women will use products Boots sells irresponsibly and excessively, spending a fortune on self-abasement and false hope. That’s life, though, isn’t it? Boots isn’t your mother.

Unless, of course, it’s emergency contraception you’re after. If your desire is not for a wax to strip your pubic region bare, or for diet pills to give you diarrhoea while making you smaller, but for medication in order to prevent an unwanted pregnancy, well, that’s a different matter. Here, Boots have grave concerns that making such medication too cheap may be “incentivising inappropriate use”.

I am wondering in what instances it may be “inappropriate” to want to stop the implantation of an unwanted embryo in its tracks. I’ve wondered and wondered and wondered, but I can’t think of anything. I’ve used emergency contraception five times (twice from Boots, following the third degree from an embarrassed pharmacist for no reason whatsoever.) On no occasion have I particularly felt like it.

I don’t get high on nausea and heavy, gloopy periods. I took emergency contraception because in the context of my life, it was the responsible thing to do (by contrast, the most reckless thing I’ve ever done is have a third baby at age 40, even if it saved me £28.25 in Levonelle costs nine months earlier).

Clearly Boots don’t see things the way I do. There may be women who use Adios or Strippd inappropriately, but what’s the alternative to making these things easily available? More women getting fat, or fewer spending money on trying not to get fat, and such a thing would be untenable.

As for the alternative to accessing emergency contraception ... Well, it’s only a pregnancy. No big deal. And hey, did you know Boots even sell special toiletries for new mums, just so you can pamper yourself and the baby you didn’t want in the first place? See, they really care! (But don’t go thinking you can then use your Advantage Points to buy formula milk. Those tits were made for feeding – why not spend your points on a bust firming gel for afterwards?).

I get that Boots is interested in profit and I get that pretending to really, really care about the customer is just what you do when you’re in marketing. I also get that Boots isn't the only company which does this. They all do.

But making it harder for poorer women to access emergency contraception just so you won’t offend the customers who’ll judge them? Really, Boots? Isn’t that making this whole charade a little too obvious?

Commenting on what another woman does with her body should not be off-limits (if it was, no one would have ever identified and treated the eating disorder that was killing me.) Even so, it’s instructive to look at the things we see fit to comment on and those we don’t.

Want to inject your face with poison? Augment your breasts with silicone? Have your vagina remodelled to please your husband? Go ahead. Your body, your choice.

Want to control your reproductive life? Avoid the risks and permanent aftermath of childbirth? Prevent the need for an abortion down the line?

Well, that’s another matter. We’re just not sure we can trust you. Forget about those pills. Why not have some folic acid and stretch mark cream instead?

Photo: Getty
A rape-able sex robot makes the world more dangerous for women, not less
July 21st, 2017, 06:35 PM

Eroticising a lack of consent is no answer to male sexual violence. 

On Wednesday, the Independent reported a new setting had been added to the personality range of a sex robot made by the company True Companion. Called “Frigid Farrah”, the setting allows men who own the robot to simulate rape. If you touch it in a “private area” when it is in this mode, the website explains, it will “not be appreciative of your advance”.

True Companion says the robot is not programmed to participate in a rape scenario, and the idea is “pure conjecture”. Nevertheless, the news has reopened the debate about sex robots and their relationship to consent. What does a rape-able robot say about our attitudes to consent, sex, violence and humanism? Do sex robots like Frigid Farrah eroticise and normalise male sexual aggression? Or does allowing men to “act out” these “most private sexual dreams” on inanimate objects actually make real women safer?

The idea that allowing men to “rape” robots could reduce rates of sexual violence is fundamentally flawed. Sex robot settings that eroticise a woman’s lack of consent, coupled with male aggression, risk normalising rape. It sends a message to the user that it is sexually fulfilling to violate a woman’s “No”.

It’s important to remember that rape is not a product of sexual desire. Rape is about power and domination – about violating a woman’s body and her sense of self. Raping a robot is of course preferable to raping a woman, but the fact is we need to challenge the attitudes and sense of entitlement that cause violent men to rape in the first place.

There is little evidence to back the claim that giving men sexual “outlets” reduces violence. The research that exists is focused on whether a legalised sex industry can reduce sexual assault.

Studies on Dutch “tippelzones” – spaces where soliciting is legal between certain hours – claimed the areas led to a reduction in sexual violence. However, the research lacked precise data on incidents of sexual violence and abuse, and the fact that sex workers themselves can be victims. As a result, it wasn’t possible to determine exactly how the number of rapes and assaults fell in the population at large.

Similar claims made by social scientist Catherine Hakim also failed to prove a causal link between legalised prostitution and reduced levels of sexual violence – again, because low reporting means a lack of accurate data.

Other research claims that access to the sex industry can in fact increase incidents of sexual violence. A 2013 report by Garner and Elvines for Rape Crisis South London argued that an analysis of existing research found “an overall significant positive association between pornography use and attitudes supporting violence against women in non-experimental studies”.

Meanwhile, a 2000 paper by Neil Malamuth, T Addison, and J Koss suggested that, when individuals considered at high risk of acting sexually aggressively are studied, levels of aggression are four times higher among frequent consumers of pornography.

However, just as the research fails to find a causal link between access to the sex industry and reducing violence, there is no research proving a causal link between violent pornography and gender-based violence.

Instead, we have to look at the ethical and moral principles in an industry that creates models of women for men to orgasm into. Sex robots are, at their heart, anti-humanist. They replace women with plastic and holes. They create a world for their owners where women’s voices and demands and desires and pleasures – and right to say no – are absent.

That should trouble us – we are creating products for men which send a message that the best woman is a compliant and silent one. That the best woman is one who lies back and “likes what you like, dislikes what you dislike”, to quote the True Companion website, who is “always ready to talk and play” but whose voice you can turn off whenever you want.

“By transferring one of the great evils of humanity from the real to the artificial, sex robots simply feed the demon of sexism,” says Professor Alan Winfield of the Bristol Robotics Lab. “Some might say, 'What’s the problem – a sex robot is just metal and plastic – where’s the harm?' But a 'fembot' is a sexualised representation of a woman or girl, which not only invites abusive treatment but demands it. A robot cannot give consent – thus only deepening the already chronic and dangerous objectification of real women and girls.”

What research does tell us is that there is a clear link between violence and the perpetrator’s ability to dehumanise their victims. That, and a setting designed to eroticise a woman’s lack of consent, suggest that Frigid Farrah will have no impact on reducing sexual assault. Rather, it creates a space where rape and violence is normalised and accepted.

Instead of shrugging our shoulders at this sexualisation of male violence, we should be taking action to end the belief that men are entitled to women’s bodies. That starts by saying that rape is not an inevitable part of our society, and the danger of rape cannot simply be neutralised by a robot.

Photo: Getty
Why you should watch Harry Styles in Dunkirk
July 21st, 2017, 06:35 PM

If you think casting the former One Direction star sounds like a disaster, you’re wrong.

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk features an all-star British cast: Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy… and the former One Direction member Harry Styles, whose acting experience amounts to a terrible cameo in the Nickelodeon kids’ show iCarly. But if you think casting Styles sounds like a disaster, you’re wrong. His turn comes during a period of self-reinvention. Earlier this year, he released a 1970s-influenced album that would prick the ears of the most boy-band-sceptic dad rocker. This film, pitched at an older, masculine audience, could be part of the same game plan.

Over the last couple of decades, it feels like we’ve had more and more musicians-turned-actors: Justin Timberlake, Jennifer Lopez, Will Smith. But the concept of a pop pin-up at their peak swaggering into the movies thanks to their sheer charisma seems to belong to another time: Elvis in Jailhouse Rock, Frank Sinatra in Guys and Dolls, Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan. But this is what it feels like to watch Harry Styles in Dunkirk.

In the action-heavy, dialogue-sparse film, there’s not a whole lot for Styles to mess up – I assume the casting directors scoured CVs for skills such as “sharing dark looks” and “sweating profusely”. But he’s good. He plays Alex, a difficult British soldier trying desperately to survive long enough to make it on to a boat back home. His ad-libbed swearing works; you buy his aggressive brand of fear and, yes, he looks amazing wet. In a scene of intense peril, he even says the words “sauerkraut sauce” in a way that doesn’t make you snort with laughter.

Who are the Hollywood heart-throbs of the past decade? Zac Efron? Robert Pattinson? Liam Hemsworth? All handsome and adored, but in a slightly anaemic way. In 20 years, will teens be posting pictures captioned, “Wow. Young Zefron”? What’s the modern equivalent of a shirtless Brad Pitt in Thelma & Louise, or Leo in Titanic? Could it possibly be Harry Styles? 

Photo: Getty
Will Britain end up agreeing a lengthy transition deal with the EU?
July 21st, 2017, 06:35 PM

It's those seeking to prevent a referendum re-run who have the most to fear from a bungled exit.

You can check out, but you'll never leave? Today's papers all cover the growing momentum behind a transition arrangement after Britain leaves the European Union, whereby the United Kingdom remains in the single market and customs union.

The FT reports on the first meeting between Theresa May and her new “business council”, in which business leaders had one big message for the PM: no-one wants a “no deal” Brexit – and Confederation of British Industry director Carolyn Fairbairn repeated her call for a lengthy transition arrangement.

The Times splashes on government plans drawn up by Philip Hammond that include a two-year transition arrangement and private remarks by David Prior, a junior minister, that Britain was headed for “the softest of soft Brexits”.

A cabinet source tells the Guardian that the transition will last even longer than that – a four-year period in which the United Kingdom remains in the single market.

Broadly, the argument at the cabinet table for a transition deal has been won, with the lingering issue the question of how long a transition would run for. The fear among Brexiteers, of course, is that a temporary arrangement would become permanent.

Their long-term difficulty is Remainers' present problem: that no one is changing their minds on whether or not Brexit is a good idea. Put crudely, every year the passing of time winnows away at that Leave lead. When you add the surprise and anger in this morning's papers over what ought to be a routine fact of Brexit – that when the UK is no longer subject to the free movement of people, our own rights of free movement will end – the longer the transition, the better the chances that if parliament's Remainers can force a re-run on whether we really want to go through with this, that Britain will stay in the EU.

A quick two-year transition means coming out of the bloc in 2022, however, just when this parliament is due to end. Any dislocation at that point surely boosts Jeremy Corbyn's chances of getting into Downing Street, so that option won't work for the government either.

There's another factor in all this: a transition deal isn't simply a question of the British government deciding it wants one. It also hinges on progress in the Brexit talks. Politico has a helpful run-down of the progress, or lack thereof, so far – and basically, the worse they go, the less control the United Kingdom has over the shape of the final deal.

But paradoxically, it's those seeking to prevent a referendum re-run who have the most to fear from a bungled exit. The more time is wasted, the more likely that the UK ends up having to agree to a prolonged transition, with the timing of a full-blown trade deal at the EU's convenience. And the longer the transition, the better the chances for Remainers of winning a replay. 

Photo: Getty
Murder by numbers: the legacy of the Grenfell Tower fire
July 21st, 2017, 06:35 PM

It is difficult to refute the reality of suffering when the death toll is still being reckoned.

How do we measure human malice? Sometimes it’s all too easy. This summer, British cities are struggling through the aftermath of successive terrorist attacks and hate crimes. The Manchester bombing. The Westminster Bridge murders. The London Bridge atrocity. The attack on people outside the Finsbury Park Mosque in north London and on other mosques. The unidentified young men who are still at large in the capital after spraying acid in the faces of passers-by, mutilating them.

In Britain, we are commendably resilient about these things. Returning to London after some time away, I found my spirits lifted by an issue of the London Evening Standard magazine that celebrated the ordinary people who stepped in to help after these atrocities. The paramedics who worked through the night. The Romanian chef who offered shelter in his bakery. The football fan who took on the London Bridge terrorists, screaming, “Fuck you, I’m Millwall!” The student housing co-ordinator who rushed to organise board for the victims of the inferno at the Grenfell Tower and their families.

Wait. Hold on a second. One of these things is not like the others. The Grenfell Tower disaster, in which at least 80 people died, was not a terrorist or malicious attack. It was the result of years of callous council decisions and underinvestment in social housing. On 14 June, entire families burned alive in their homes partly because, it is alleged, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea would not pay the extra £5,000 or so for fire-resistant cladding. Nor could it find the cash, despite a budget surplus, to instal proper sprinkler systems on the rotting interior of the building.

Kensington and Chelsea is a Tory borough that, in cash terms, cares very little for poorer citizens who are unlikely to vote the right way. In 2014, while the Grenfell Tower residents were refused basic maintenance, the council handed out £100 rebates to its top-rate taxpayers, boasting of its record of “consistently delivering greater efficiencies while improving services”. Some of those efficiencies had names, and parents, and children.

This is a different sort of depravity altogether. It’s depravity with plausible deniability, right up until the point at which deniability goes up in flames. Borrowing from Friedrich Engels, John McDonnell described the Grenfell Tower disaster as “social murder”. The shadow chancellor and sometime Jack Russell of the parliamentary left has never been known for his delicate phrasing.

Naturally, the Tory press queued up to condemn McDonnell – not because he was wrong but because he was indiscreet. “There’s a long history in this country of the concept of social murder,” he said, “where decisions are made with no regard to the consequences… and as a result of that people have suffered.”

It is difficult to refute the reality of that suffering when the death toll is still being reckoned from the towering tombstone that now blights the west London skyline.” As the philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote, “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”

Market austerity is no less brutal for being bloodless, calculating, an ideology of measuring human worth in pennies and making cuts that only indirectly slice into skin and bone. Redistributing large sums of money from the poor to the rich is not simply an abstract moral infraction: it kills. It shortens lives and blights millions more. Usually, it does so in a monstrously phlegmatic manner: the pensioners who die early of preventable diseases, the teenagers who drop out of education, the disabled people left to suffer the symptoms of physical and mental illness with nobody to care for them, the thousands who have died on the waiting lists for state benefits that they are perfectly entitled to, the parents whose pride disintegrates as they watch their children go to school hungry.

We are not encouraged to measure the human cost of austerity in this way, even though there are many people in back offices making exactly these sorts of calculations. This year, when researchers from the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine claimed that “relentless cuts” to the health service could explain as many as 30,000 “excess deaths” in England and Wales in 2015, the government denounced this as “a triumph of personal bias over research”, which, however you slice it, is a callous prep school debater’s response to the reality of 30,000 fresh graves.

There is a species of evil in which an individual allows the dark and yammering corners of his mind to direct him to put a blade in a bystander’s belly, or a bomb in a bustling crowd of teenage girls. That sort of monstrosity is as easy to identify as it is mercifully rare, though frighteningly less rare than it was in less febrile times. But there is another sort of evil that seldom makes the headlines. This comes about when someone sits down with a calculator and works out how much it will cost to protect and nurture human life, deducts that from the cost of a tax rebate for local landowners or a nice night at the opera, then comes up with a figure. It’s an ordinary sort of evil, and it has become routine and automated in the austerity years. It is a sort of evil, in the words of Terry Pratchett, that “begins when you begin to treat people as things”. 

The Grenfell Tower disaster was the hellish evidence of the consequences of fiscal ruthlessness that nobody could look away from. Claims that it could not have been predicted were shot down by the victims. The residents’ association wrote on its campaign website after years of begging the council to improve living conditions: “It is a truly terrifying thought but the Grenfell Action Group firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord.”

That catastrophic event has happened, and the ordinary British response to tragedy – brave, mannered dignity – is inappropriate. When the Grenfell inquiry launches next month, it is incumbent on every citizen to call for answers and to call this kind of travesty by its name: murder by numbers.

Photo: Reuters
Tory arguments about public sector pay are misguided and divisive
July 21st, 2017, 06:35 PM

The only oppositions that matter are between capital and labour, and between top executives and everybody else.

Is Philip Hammond right? Are public sector workers better paid than workers in the private sector who hold equivalent qualifications? Yes, if we believe the Office for National Statistics and the Institute for Fiscal Studies. Yet the calculations do not take into account the private sector’s bonuses (though most private sector workers never have bonuses) or the public sector’s considerably better pension rights. And if you try to take account of the burdens imposed by staffing cuts (probably greater in the public sector), you will get a headache.

The calculations are further complicated by the increasingly blurred lines between the sectors. The main point of privatisation and outsourcing, regardless of waffle about “efficiencies”, is to cut wages for ordinary workers while boosting them for the boss class. It would be surprising if this project hadn’t achieved some success, though train drivers, reportedly singled out by Hammond as “ludicrously overpaid”, are unambiguously in the private sector.

The Tories contrive such arguments to divide those who are justly aggrieved by low wages. Public v private, migrants v true-born Britons, women v men, graduates v non-graduates, train drivers v less skilled workers. The only oppositions that matter are between capital and labour, and between top executives and everybody else. Hammond cannot expect nurses and teachers to accept stagnant wages just because wages for office workers and delivery people have stagnated at a lower level.

First class

For years, everyone complained that young people didn’t bother to vote. Now, they are accused of voting too much. The Electoral Commission’s report on last month’s general election, while noting “lack of evidence of widespread abuse”, says it takes “very seriously” boasts by people on social media that they voted twice. Tory MPs and defeated candidates are also taking this seriously, with students the alleged culprits.

Electoral law allows people to register in two locations if they have two residences. Students, therefore, can register at their family home and their term-time abode. In local elections, they can vote in both locations, provided different councils are involved. In general elections, they can vote only once. It is all very confusing and, theoretically, wide open to abuse. But think of the practicalities. To influence results significantly, a voter needs to have residences in two marginal constituencies and to have time, energy, money and organisation to travel from one to the other in a day. Does that sound like any student you know?

Austerity blues

Several weeks ago, I drew attention to falling life expectancy in the US and France. Now the leading epidemiologist Michael Marmot finds that increases in British life expectancy – uninterrupted since the Second World War – are “pretty close to having ground to a halt” since 2010. Marmot says it is “entirely possible” that austerity has played a role. He offers no analysis of which sections of the population are most affected but you need only read the Times’s death notices to know that top people rarely die before their nineties. I hope Labour will use this open goal.

Sex degrees of separation

Seumas Milne, Jeremy Corbyn’s spin doctor, may have other things on his mind, however. To the excitement of the tabloid press, he was recently photographed embracing a young blonde lawyer not his wife. Hacks unearthed the woman’s “links” to Julian Assange, whom she once represented (no impropriety alleged), and to her close friend Amal Clooney (ditto), the human rights lawyer married to George Clooney.

In London, where the political, media, arts and legal establishments are closely entwined, it is always possible to find such “links”. When I edited the Independent on Sunday, I entertained my boss David Montgomery, the Mirror Group’s chief executive, by drawing circles of relationships between leading upmarket media figures. These showed that, if you started with A, who had slept with B, who had slept with C, and so on, you could usually get back to A in about six steps. Montgomery was so thrilled that he summoned the editors of Mirror Group tabloids to admire this product of a broadsheet editor’s intellect.

Mail pattern weirdness

The Daily Mail is outraged that the new Doctor Who will be female. Male heroes, it screams, are “disappearing from the box”. Its TV critic complains that, “in almost every new British drama, men are relegated to sidekick status or else cast as moral weaklings”. Doctor Who has been ruined by lesbianism and “transgender politics”. BBC executives are “wrecking their own Saturday night mainstay to demonstrate how right-on they are”.

I worry about the Mail. Since Theresa May’s disastrous election performance – the Mail backed her more emphatically than it backed even Margaret Thatcher – it has become increasingly deranged. A few weeks ago, it blamed her failure to woo voters on the influence of “headmasters”. Paul Dacre, the editor, celebrates 25 years in the chair this year. Is it time for the proprietor, Lord Rothermere, to suggest that Dacre retires to his 17,000-acre estate in the Scottish Highlands where there is excellent shooting and deerstalking to be had?

Over the top

The England cricket coach Trevor Bayliss said earlier this year: “This is an entertainment business. If you are not entertaining, people don’t turn up.” Indeed. Under him, the team has developed the habit of losing a Test match by a large margin immediately after winning one. It has just done it once more against South Africa at Trent Bridge in Nottingham. And nobody can deny that, with two matches to play, a Test series squared at 1-1 promises more entertainment and more spectators than would a series in which England led 2-0. 

Photo: Getty
Matt Forde: “Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May are indistinguishable on Brexit”
July 21st, 2017, 06:35 PM

The Dave host and former Labour adviser on why comedy is so much better than politics.

Matt Forde gave up his Labour Party membership after Jeremy Corbyn’s first leadership victory, according to Wikipedia, because he is a “committed Blairite”. Presented with that information two years later, the host of Dave’s satirical chat show Unspun, and former Labour adviser, says the description isn’t entirely accurate. “I left politics because I wanted to concentrate on my comedy career full-time. I’d always done both; I did my first gig when I was 16 and carried on doing them during my early activism. I guess when I was working for MPs and Labour, I didn’t have as much time and I wasn’t sure if it was appropriate. I also felt that the direction Labour was going in wasn’t for me. I don’t write my own Wikipedia page, in any case.” 

Forde’s admiration for Tony Blair, though, radiates off him. The ex-Prime Minister appeared as a guest on Unspun last year. Pressed on Blair’s legacy, Forde insists that it encompasses “far more than people care to admit” beyond the Iraq War. “I think a lot of people on the hard left would equate Blairism to Iraq and I really struggle with that," he says. "Millions of people voted for New Labour and millions of people still reflect on that period of politics in a positive way.

"Social justice was still at the core of New Labour. It was about tackling inequality and using the state to do that. But it was also about being pro-business, pro-Europe and having a pragmatic view of the world.” That Labour won three general elections on Blair’s watch, Forde suggests, is considered by some factions of the party to be an inconvenient truth.

The Nottingham-born comic believes Labour’s broad church represents a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the party’s lurch to the left has resulted in its biggest increase in the share of the vote by a party leader since Clement Attlee in 1945; on the other, the success is only relative, as it still hasn’t been enough to get back into government. For all the talk of renewed unity under Corbyn’s bright banner of socialism, Forde says there remains a distinct disunity regarding the party’s position on Brexit. “The thing is, on Brexit, Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May are pretty much indistinguishable from each other," he says. "They will allow it to happen and deny us access to the single market. Brexit is the single biggest threat to our economy and society and I don’t feel like the scale of that issue is being reflected by the two major parties. It feels like those of us who do care about it and can see what a car crash it’s going to be are stood screaming behind a piece of soundproof glass.”

In fairness, the idea of a Labour split along European faultlines is not one that started with Corbyn. Aside from not being in government, what makes the current Labour squabbling different? Forde smirks. “I know there’s a view that Blair sort of hijacked Labour and rubbed a lot of noses in the dirt. The difference between that era and this one is that people like Corbyn and John McDonnell were actually allowed to rebel. They weren’t threatened with deselection for having a different opinion. The leadership and culture of the party at that time understood the broad church. At the end of the day, it was better to have a hard left MP in Islington than to deselect him and not have one at all. The idea that some Corbyn supporters would rather that a Blairite MP lost their seat is baffling.”

The Labour MP Chuka Umunna recently tabled an amendment on the Queen’s Speech calling for the UK to stay in the single market post-Brexit. Some shadow ministers decided to join him in defying the whip. Was Umunna right to table the amendment? “Yes, I think so,” says Forde. “We don’t have plurality right now. We’re too binary in Labour. There’s an idea that you’re either with us or against us. That’s not just immature, but deeply disrespectful to some very valuable assets in the party.” 

Arguing against Corbyn in the context of Europe does seem a bit of a moot point – “it shouldn’t” Forde objects – but it does. Whatever Corbyn’s perceived failings on Brexit are, he has mobilised a formidable youth wing and campaigned with immeasurably more verve than the current Prime Minister. Forde nods. “The Maybot did herself no favours, sure. He’s a natural campaigner and he deserves credit for that. Look, Corbyn is a nice guy. He’s affable; you can talk football with him. But as for the culture around him, that isn’t always the case.” 

Is Corbynism a cult? Forde sighs. “The problem with investing so emotionally in an individual is that all of your politics end up being processed through them. You suspend critical thought. You think that if this person represents what you believe, then they can never do anything wrong.” 

Corbyn, though, won’t be Labour leader forever. “Tell that to his supporters,” jokes Forde. What happens post-Corbynism? Who should be in the frame to take over? “I guess that depends on whether he does actually become  Prime Minister, which to be fair is a distinct possibility now. If he does, you might see the party want to stick with that far-left tract, but then what happens to the rest of us? You’ve already seen Paul Mason [the journalist and Corbyn supporter] telling centrists that if they want a pro-European centrist party then they should leave Labour. That’s horrendous.” 

Forde’s frustration with the Brexit imbroglio is forthright. It’s something that clearly troubles him and overarches his comedy. So, would he ever go back into politics himself? “I doubt it. Comedy is so much better. Politics is exhausting and for a lot of the time a thankless task that ages people at a rate that no other industry does.” At 68, incidentally, Jeremy Corbyn is entitled to retire. 

Matt Forde performs A Show Hastily Rewritten In Light Of Recent Events - Again! at Pleasance Forth at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe from 2-27 August.

 

Matt Forde
Free money for everyone: will universal basic income ever happen?
July 21st, 2017, 06:35 PM

The division of rewards between capital and labour seems to be growing ever-more skewed.

“Times of crisis are also times of great freedom,” wrote the French social philosopher André Gorz in 1983. “Our world is out of joint; societies are disintegrating, our lifelong hopes and values are crumbling. The future ceases to be a continuation of past trends. The meaning of present development is confused; the meaning of history suspended.” The words come at the start of Paths to Paradise, subtitled “On the Liberation From Work” and written as a concise manifesto for a new kind of leftism. Its two foundations, Gorz explained, were the embrace of automation and what he called a social income, paid by the state “to meet the needs of the citizen rather than the worker”.

Thirty-four years later, the inheritors of Gorz’s dreams frame their arguments in the same sense of a sudden break with history, endless economic turbulence, and people blinking into a future without precedent. “We live in a new world, remade by many forces,” announce Philippe Van Parijs and Yannick Vanderborght, two academics from the University of Louvain, Belgium. In the midst of what they call a “disruptive technological revolution”, ecological breakdown and the decline of such collective institutions as trade unions, they insist that the key political imperative is “to rebuild confidence and hope in the future of our societies”, and “embrace radical ideas” – starting with a guaranteed income “paid upfront to rich and poor alike, regardless of the income they derive from other sources, the property they own, or the income of their relatives”.

Reading across from one text to another, cynics might detect the eternal leftie habit – evident in the work of everyone from Marx and Engels to Naomi Klein – of declaring a historic watershed that only the author’s ideas can address: a variety of what some people call “chronocentrism”, described by the journalist and author Tom Standage as “the egotism that one’s own generation is poised on the very cusp of history”. But I’d rather be a bit more generous. Gorz was writing at a time when the postwar consensus around the big state and large-scale industry was breaking apart: in retrospect, the point at which the modernity with which we are all now familiar – of globalisation, financialised capitalism, the rise of information technology and the dominance of consumerism – began to take root, and throw up questions that the mainstream left seemed increasingly unable to answer. In that sense, his work pointed to developments that have snowballed – and though it has taken a long time, intellectual fashion is finally beginning to catch up.

Turn up at any left-leaning gathering these days, and the chances are that the idea of a basic income – abbreviated to UBI, in which the “U” can stand for either universal or unconditional – will be talked about. In theory at least, it answers one of the central problems of our age: the way that the division of rewards between capital and labour seems to be growing ever-more skewed, as a few tech corporations threaten to dominate the planet, and technology polarises the job market between a small number of handsomely paid jobs at the top, and a growing mass of insecure, poorly paid roles at the bottom. If you prefer your economics to be more apocalyptic and believe that the rise of the robots will render most work extinct, the case for UBI is even stronger. But there is one big problem – politics – and some very big questions: not just how to pay for any such scheme, but how to sell the idea to millions of people used to the quaint notion that financial rewards should always be linked to hard graft.

Nonetheless, the idea is gaining political ground. UBI has been Green Party policy since the mid 1970s. The shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, has talked approvingly of the basic principle, and held out the prospect of UBI appearing in a future Labour manifesto. The Corbynites’ in-house theorist and agitator-at-large, Paul Mason, put the idea at the core of his 2015 economic treatise Postcapitalism. In as much as it passed an approving conference motion, the Scottish National Party has also embraced the idea.

Barack Obama says UBI will be at the centre of “a debate we’ll be having” over the next two decades. In June last year, Switzerland held a referendum on whether to introduce a basic income of £1,700 a month – which was roundly defeated, although the plan’s advocates (and they would, wouldn’t they?) claimed that backing from more than one in five of those who voted represented a foundation on which to build. Big figures in Silicon Valley – the latest being Mark Zuckerberg – are increasingly fond of the concept. Meanwhile, pilots have either been launched, or are being prepared, in Holland, Finland, California and Catalonia, as people try to put practical flesh on the bones of an idea that dates back at least 500 years, and whose champions have included Thomas More, Tom Paine, John Stuart Mill, Bertrand Russell, Martin Luther King, and an array of names on the political right, including Richard Nixon and Milton Friedman.

Now comes the point at which the principle of UBI is not just advocated by academics and politicians, but by people who have their sights set on the bestseller lists. Rutger Bregman is from Holland, and is an example of that group of international hotshots who seem to spend their lives pinballing between airport terminals and TED talks. He writes in a breathless, faux-conversational style built around such verbal tics as “Don’t get me wrong” and “Let’s get one thing straight”, and drops the names of everyone from Thomas Hobbes to John Maynard Keynes, usually with no real sense that he has understood the nuances and complexities of their ideas.

All that said, Bregman has a decent sense of how to structure an argument. Using a technique that probably owes more to PowerPoint than to great literature, he tends to begin with a primary-coloured, counter-intuitive proposition – witness the title of chapter two, “Why we should give free money to everyone” – before rattling through a selection of anecdotes that serve to prove him right. On the latter score, he capably recounts past experiments with UBI-esque schemes in such countries as Kenya, Uganda and Liberia, as well as summarising the effects of a 2010 project in London in which 13 homeless people were given hundreds of pounds to spend as they saw fit – and rather than blowing the money on alcohol and drugs, used it to improve their position, to the point that 11 of them moved off the streets.

He also rehearses a story that will be familiar to anyone who has acquainted themselves with the growing mountain of material on UBI: the 1970s experiment that involved the 13,000 residents of Dauphin, a town in the Manitoba province of Canada, who were temporarily guaranteed the modern equivalent of $19,000 dollars a year. They lived out UBI’s emancipatory promise: educational attainment went up, as did the divorce rate, as women were granted a financial independence that suddenly multiplied their options.

The failings of his arguments, however, extend into the distance. He makes too little distinction between UBI as advanced by people on the left, and the very different models conceived on the political right, which has tended to view basic income as a neat way of doing away with the welfare state. Though the fault could lie with his translator, he also writes about the key beneficiaries of a basic income in a register that seems to mix the haughtiness of a 19th-century social reformer with a crass tone redolent of MTV’s Beavis and Butt-Head. He repeatedly refers to an amorphous bloc of people he terms “the poor” – who, according to one section, “borrow more, save less, smoke more, exercise less, drink more, and eat less healthfully [sic]”. The heading for this passage is “Why Poor People Do Dumb Things”.

For all his zeal, he also has no real sense of what a difficult political sell UBI remains, and when his self-styled utopia is widened to include completely open national borders, everything threatens to fall apart. “In the 19th century inequality was still a matter of class; nowadays, it’s a matter of location,” he writes, which is not just banal, but indicative of views that he has perhaps failed to think through. Combining unlimited immigration with a new onus on the state to pay a universal income would surely kill popular consent for the latter idea in a flash. And how plucking the most entrepreneurial, qualified people from half the world’s countries is meant to solve geographical inequality remains unclear – but at the risk of sounding like his dad, such is the world as viewed from the perspective of a 28-year-old who should maybe do a bit more traditional journalism before he chooses once again to hold forth.

Guy Standing is a London-based academic who has been making the case for UBI since the 1980s. In a prolific stream of work (by my reckoning, Basic Income is his fifth book in seven years), he has always placed the idea in the context not just of the growing class of insecure workers he memorably termed “the precariat”, but of the need for a conception of human rights fit for the 21st century. Standing tends to write in an overly formal way that leads him to present too many of his arguments in the form of lists, but his work is rich enough to take in theology, history, and a range of arguments that are often subtle and unexpected: among them, the idea that UBI might be a good way of managing the eternal tendency of capitalism to strip what it can out of places, before moving on and leaving them bereft.

He makes this latter point using the case of Middlesbrough, the kind of post-industrial English town that stands as a byword for what he calls “the cruelty of history”. If other places that once gained from its industry have continued to prosper, “often through inherited wealth and privilege”, isn’t there a case for a long overdue payback? Standing claims that this is an example of the kind of “inter-generational justice” most politicians dare not talk about, and that UBI is the way to achieve it. In the context of his accounts of many of the same pilots and experiments described by Bregman, the point here is simple enough: that as much as anything, UBI amounts to an ongoing fiscal stimulus, which would give people the kind of foundation they need to move their lives out of the cul-de-sacs into which our Darwinian kind of capitalism has pushed them.

The danger of such arguments is that they stray close to what might be called silver-bulletry, a charge that definitely applies to some of Standing’s more hubristic claims. At one point, he claims UBI might even be able to tackle global warming, a contention that seems to revolve around how a basic income might enable governments to lay off coal miners. In the midst of such claims, the question of how to advance UBI politically screams out for an answer, but none really arrives. “Policymakers must secure a broad level of social acceptance of basic income among the public, or at least a willingness to give the reform a fair trial,” he writes. “This must mean, among other things, a sensitive campaign to explain the values and principles behind the reform.” These truths are self-evident, but beyond the idea that UBI might arrive via “baby steps” (first introducing a limited version, then currying public favour until something more extensive could be implemented), the question of how to deal with the basic matter of public consent is dealt with too briskly.

Van Parijs and Vanderborght’s book is a funny old thing: a stereotypically academic, often impenetrable text, which veers through philosophy, politics, desiccated economics and explorations of some of the cases for UBI’s more out-there elements. When chewing over how on earth to fund national basic income schemes, they first alight on the idea of the state owning the economy and distributing its imagined profits to the entire population. They then imagine the nationalisation of land, before settling on the case for a “partial limited income”, likely to come with conditions – taking part in education or training, caring for friends or relatives, holding down a job, or at least looking for one – which might then be gradually dropped. This is bundled up with their deadpan acknowledgement that their own overview of the balance of forces for and against UBI “does not exactly suggest that the introduction of a generous basic income is imminent anywhere in the world”.

Compared with the grand promise of a “radical proposal”, the conclusion comes with the slight taste of disappointment, and underlines how far the case for a basic income has yet to go. For now, perhaps, the imperative should be not to get lost in hypothetical figures, or to widen the argument into a catch-all solution to everything wrong with the world, but to make the case for UBI in terms of one big argument: that the economy is rapidly changing in ways that leave the 20th century’s combination of complicated welfare systems and secure work behind, with profound human consequences.

If, returning to André Gorz, our world is out of joint and the meaning of history is suspended, the best way to make that point might be to hear from more people at the sharp end, one of whom – quoted from a secondary source – suddenly appears on page 78 of Standing’s book. He is an unnamed man who has reverted to receiving disability benefits, after falling into the kind of traps now inherent in modern economies. He says this:

“There was a time a number of years ago when my health improved spontaneously. Half my brain sought to grab life by the horns and get out into the working world as soon as I could. The other half stood terrified by the bureaucratic difficulties endemic in the system; difficulties that forced you either to relinquish your crucial income in the hope of being able to replace it, or lie to the Department of Work and Pensions. As it happened, I did manage to work for a short while, only to have to push myself far too hard to replace the benefit lost, leading to a relapse from which I have never recovered.”

Those 112 words show that in the end, online lectures, endless graphs and accounts of limited experiments do not add up to much of an argument. If the case for a basic income feels unanswerable but has yet to take flight, that might be because of an absence that runs through all three of these books: that of authentic voices, making the case for the future in the midst of the failings of the present. 

Basic Income: A Radical Proposal for a Free Society and a Sane Economy
Philippe Van Parijs and Yannick Vanderborght
Harvard, 384pp, £23.95

Utopia for Realists And How We Can Get There
Rutger Bregman. Translated by Elizabeth Manton
Bloomsbury, 316pp, £16.99

Basic Income: And How We Can Make it Happen
Guy Standing
Pelican, 348pp, £8.99

Photo: Millennium Images
The quiet civil war for control of the Labour grassroots machine
July 21st, 2017, 06:35 PM

The party's newly empowered far left is trying to wrest control of local branches.

“Party time! PARTY TIME!” A young man wearing a Jeremy Corbyn t-shirt appears on screen and starts dancing, accompanied by flashing emojis of a red rose and a party popper.

“There’s only one game in town and it’s getting our boy J Corbz into Downing Street”, he announces, and to do that, he is planning to explain the “nitty gritty” of local Labour politics, and, promisingly, “give a little gossip on the way”. The man is Michael Walker of online left-wing outlet Novara Media, and the video has been watched more than 38,000 times on Facebook in just two weeks.

So why should Labour members suddenly be made to care about “structures, factions, conference, selections, rule changes”? “There were shedloads of people who got involved in the Labour Party for the first time by knocking on doors during the general election,” Walker explains, “but to make sure that the Labour Party represents their voices as it goes forward, they’re going to need to take getting involved in Labour’s bureaucratic structures seriously.

“There’s a risk that the party structures and bureaucracy will try and shut down participation in the Labour Party just like they did last summer, and we want to make sure that it can’t happen again.”

While the Parliamentary Labour Party is going into recess as a more united group since the election than it had been in the past two years, there is a quiet war still being fought at local level. Now that their man has proved that he could exceed expectations and turn Labour into a solid opposition, Corbynites want to make sure that the centrists cannot keep a hold on the internal party machine.

This involves projects like Walker’s catchy videos, and Momentum’s Your Labour Conference website, which encourages members to get interested in the election of the conference arrangements committee, in order to have more of a say on what gets discussed at the party’s annual conference.

“We recognise the fact that sometimes the Labour Party can be a bit of a labyrinth and something which can be pretty hard to work out, and we want to push people forward and help them get more involved,” a Momentum spokesperson says. “We’re trying to make it more open and more accessible to younger people and help people understand what’s going on.”

With tens of thousands of people joining Labour over the past few months – including around 20,000 since the election – their intentions seem noble: the Labour party internal structure is, after all, notoriously complex. However, it isn’t clear how the existing members who are involved in local organising – a lot of whom are or were until recently sceptical of Corbyn – will deal with this new influx of activists.

“Corbyn supporters are no longer the underdog in the party, and understandably people who joined recently are highly motivated to get their opinions across, so they’ve been turning up in droves at local meetings,” says Richard Angell, the director of Blairite organisation Progress.

“They’re not brilliantly organised but they’re there, and they turned up with this sense of 'we told you so', so they’re starting to win things that they wouldn’t have before the election.”

Centrist and centre-left Labour factions have often been the most organised campaigners in constituency Labour parties, and they’re now worried that if they were to get ousted, the party would suffer.

“Lots of our members are the people who hold the CLPs together – lots of people turned up in certain places to campaign, and the people who organised the clipboards, the data, did the work to make that happen are still a network of moderates,” Angell adds. “If Momentum tried to sweep them away in a vindictive wave of jubilation, it would backfire, and that’s what they have to think about now.”

Though the people at the helm of Momentum have never explicitly called for a takeover of the party at local level, some CLPs are struggling with bitter infighting. Lewisham is home to some of these battlegrounds. With three CLPs in the borough, the local Momentum branch is trying to gain more power in the local parties to implement the changes they want to see at that level.

“There’s an organised left-wing presence in all three CLPs in Lewisham,” a local Momentum organiser, who did not want to be named, says. “We want the CLPs to become outward-looking campaigning bodies, and we want them to be functionally democratic.”

What the branch also wants is to have a radical rethink of what Labour does at council level, and the activist was critical of what the councillors have been doing.

“Under the right-wing, Lewisham CLPs never really campaign on anything – they’ll occasionally have these set pieces, like the Labour day of action on education, which is good, but in reality there’s no one going campaigning on anything,” he says.

“The other thing is about the record of the council - no-one would deny that Labour councils are in a difficult situation, in terms of getting cut again and again and again, but equally at the moment, the attitude of a lot of Labour councils in Lewisham at least is 'it’s not just that there’s nothing else we could do, we’re actually going to go further than the Tories are demanding'."

“It’s not just that they’re saying 'oh, there’s not really anything we can do to fight back against cuts' but it’s also that they’ve actually absorbed all the neoliberal stuff.”

The response to these allegations from a long-term Labour member, who wants to remain anonymous but is close to the currently serving councillors, was unsurprising.

“It is utterly absurd to suggest that councillors want to cut services – Labour members stand for council because they want to stand up for their community and protect local services,” he says. 

“As for campaigning and taking on the Tories, it was the 'right-wing' Lewisham Council which took the government to the High Court over their plans to close Lewisham Hospital – and won. The 'right wing' CLPs worked tirelessly with the Save Lewisham Hospital campaign, and we won.”

According to him, Labour is doomed to fail if it doesn’t unite soon, and he worries that left-wing activists may be getting carried away. “The vast majority of members in Lewisham are really pleased with the result and with the way the party pulled together – locally and nationally – for the election campaign,” he says.

“At the second members' meeting after the election, we had a discussion about how we all needed to carry on in the spirit of unity that we'd recently seen, and that if we did so, we have a good chance of seeing a Labour government soon.”

“It's a shame that some people want to label, attack and purge fellow members, rather than working together to beat the Tories. The more they focus on internal, factional in-fighting, the less chance we will have of seeing a Labour government and ending the cuts.”

Beyond the ideological differences which, as the election showed, can mostly be smoothed over when the party senses that it’s getting close to power, an explanation for the Labour left’s occasional bullishness could be its sense of insecurity.

After all, the wave of new members who joined after Corbyn became leader was hardly welcomed by the party’s mainstream, and the narrative quickly turned to Trotskyist entryism instead.

Momentum also spent many of its formative months being treated with suspicion, as a Trojan horse aiming to get MPs deselected, which is yet to happen two years on. Painted as the opposition to the opposition, activists from the Labour’s left had become used to being party pariahs, and need to figure out what to do now that they are in a position of power.

“They’re behaving like an insurgency still, but they’re in charge”, says Angell. “It’s quite a big change in mindset for them, and one I don’t think they’re really ready for.”

“We have shown that we will campaign for the Labour Party anywhere in the country, whoever the candidate is, to try and get the best result in a general election, and there is no acknowledgement of that from them at all.”

This was, amusingly, echoed by the Momentum activist – if there is one thing all factions agree on, it seems to be that the Labour left needs to figure out what it wants from the party machine it’s in the process of inheriting.

“Momentum nationally had a very good election, it mobilised a lot of people to go to marginals, and got a lot of people involved in campaigning, and that’s a step forward, to go from getting people to vote Corbyn to getting them on the doorstep,” he says, “but it’s another step from actually having a vision of how to transform the Labour Party.”

Getty
Snapchat Snap Map: what happens when teenagers track each other’s exact locations?
July 20th, 2017, 06:35 PM

“His girlfriend saw him on the map and accused him of cheating.” 

When Snap Map was released last month, it was instantly condemned. The new Snapchat feature allows users to see one another’s location on a cartoon world map. Whether you’re in your car, at home, or hanging out with friends, the map will display your Actionmoji (a little avatar, also called Bitmoji) of your exact location, down to the street address.

 Via @CaitlinHood98

Snap Map has been called “creepy” “stalky” and “dangerous” in headlines since its June 2017 release, and parents, schools, and the police have voiced concerns about children’s safety when using the app. It seems like a grim inevitability that Snap Map will eventually hit the headlines when a stalker uses it against a victim, and privacy concerns about the feature are exceptionally valid.

But for now, the map is causing different problems.

“My friend was actually in the mall and his ex was there,” says Chris Baer, 21, from Virginia. When Snap Map users are in the same location, their Bitmoji are displayed near each other or in a circle. This means you can tell – or think you can tell – which people are hanging out together. “His girlfriend saw it on the map and accused him of cheating,” explains Chris.

When it comes to Snap Map, young people aren’t scared about stalkers or strangers – their biggest worry is each other. The map can jeopardise relationships in a number of ways. People can see when their friends are hanging out without them, they can tell when someone has lied about setting off but is still at home, and – when checking at night – they can figure out who’s sleeping with whom. The feature even allows you to see the last time someone sent a Snap, meaning you can tell if they’ve been ignoring your messages.

Yet the map is also being used in unpredictably great ways. After nights out, girls are using it to check whether their friends got home safely. People also use it as a navigational tool, to find their way to events where their friends are. Many teens believe the feature has improved their geography skills, as well as their knowledge of the world map. Sometimes, it’s just fun. When Chris first updated Snapchat and drove to the American fast food restaurant Hardee’s, his phone pinged with a message. “You don’t need any Hardee’s,” said his friend from Florida, 800 miles away.

Aleah Wendels is an 18-year-old from Wisconsin who uses the map to find out when her friends are working at their respective restaurants, and goes to visit them when she wants to get food. “I think it's a fun thing to just check out where all your friends are,” she says. She also uses the app to find out if there are parties happening nearby.

“My friend called me out for spending time with a boy” 

Yet Brooke Bartelt, 21, from Arkansas, uses the feature for more anti-social reasons. Before she goes to the gym, she checks if there’s someone there that she doesn’t want to bump into. “I definitely love the fact that I can use it to avoid people I don’t want to see,” she says, although she admits she was “caught” by the map when her friend saw that she was spending time with a boy.

“I have a friend who is constantly asking me to hang out, and because I work full-time I always tell her I am too tired to do anything,” explains Brooke. “One night she texted me going: ‘Hmm, looks like you’re not as busy as you said’. I had no idea she even knew the guy, much less had him as a friend on Snapchat.”

Despite this, neither Brooke nor Aleah are too worried about privacy, as both use Snap Map’s “Ghost Mode” when they don’t want to be seen. This setting means your Snapchat friends can no longer see your Bitmoji on the map, although you can still see theirs. People might use it if they’ve lied to a friend or if they’re going to visit someone in secret. But Becky Merzlyakov, a 20-year-old from New York, turned it on after a friend called her a “nerd”.

“I felt like such a loser” 

“One day a friend texted me saying how I’m such a nerd because all I do is sit at home all day... how did he know that?” says Becky. “I remembered Snap Map a few moments later and felt like such a loser. He knew I was home all the time because Snap Map showed him I never left my house.

“So just to keep myself from feeling like a friendless loser I went on Ghost… Not only do I feel like my privacy was invaded I feel embarrassed.”

Dr Dawn Branley, a cyberpsychologist specialising in the risks and benefits of online life, believes Snap Map can be good and bad for young people. “There are some potential positives to the technology – for example it can encourage users to be more socially active,” says Branley. “Any features which encourage app users to become more active in the offline world have the potential for health benefits, both physically and mentally. The Snap Map feature may make users more aware of events around their neighbourhood or make them more likely to meet up with friends in the real world.”

Yet Branley believes this is potentially a “double-edged sword”. Isolated young people may find themselves watching others socialising and become jealous and upset, she explains. “In other words, there is a concern that the technology may make ‘the socially rich richer, and the socially poor poorer’.”

Branley, like many experts, is also worried about privacy, and hopes Snap Map will incorporate a privacy feature like the one used by the fitness tracking app, Strava. This app allows users to create a privacy shield around a radius of a specific address – for example, their homes – meaning that while in this area, their location is hidden from others. 

“It’s a messy story but it's a lesson learned for sure” 

None of the people I speak to are excessively worried about privacy, though most seem savvy about how and when to use Ghost Mode. When Snap Map first launched, Chris went through his Snapchat friends and deleted anyone that he didn't personally know. Becky, who was stalked by a stranger on Facebook when she was 18, keeps all her social media on private and makes sure she only adds people she knows on Snapchat. “It’s a messy story but it's a lesson learned for sure,” she says.

In fact, Snap Map actually might be beneficial for adults who are worried about their teens. Search the words "Snap Map, aunt" on Twitter and in the last few weeks there are stories of aunts finding out where their nieces are, picking up their family from parties, and asking their relatives why they're out so late. Mums and dads can check exactly where their children are if they miss curfew, saving a lot of potential worry. 

It is evident that Snap Map has the potenital to be a dangerous invasion of privacy. For now, however, the reality of the map's use is much more banal. Snap Map is revolutionising the way teenagers act and interact – both online and off. 

Picture: Via Instagram user @stacyz713
Most Leave voters back free movement – you just have to explain it
July 20th, 2017, 06:35 PM

The argument during the referendum was never about free movement, but about immigration in general. 

This week, a piece of YouGov polling flipped on its head a widely held belief about the public’s attitude to immigration in the context of Brexit. The headline question was:

“In negotiating Britain’s departure from the European Union, do you think our government should offer EU citizens the right to travel, work, study or retire in Britain, in exchange for EU countries giving British citizens the same rights?”

Of the respondents, 69 per cent, including 60 per cent of Leave voters, responded that they should.

The poll has been overlooked by the bulk of the press, for whom it contradicts a very basic assumption – that the end of free movement, and the implicit acceptance of the narrative that high net migration had strained services and wages, was an electoral necessity for any party wanting to enter government. In fact, the apparent consensus against free movement after Brexit owes much less to deeply-rooted public opinion, and much more to the abject failure of progressives and mainstream Remain campaigners to make the case for it.

“If you’re explaining, you’re losing,” goes the old maxim of political communications. And this is accurate if you inhabit a world of tight, professional politics and your job is to capture votes using already widely understood concepts and a set of soundbites. So much of conventional political strategy consists of avoiding difficult or complex subjects, like free movement. This is especially the case if the exact meaning of the words requires defining. The job of radical politics is to change the terms of the debate entirely. That almost always means explaining things.

The strategy of Britain Stronger in Europe during the EU referendum campaign was a case in point. It honed down on its key message on economic stability, and refused to engage with the migration debate. As a result, the terms of the debate were set by the right. The argument during the referendum was never about free movement, but about immigration in general. If YouGov’s polling this week is correct, a majority of the British public support free movement – you just have to explain to them what it means.

That distinction between immigration and free movement was pivotal in the referendum. Immigration is a big, amorphous concept, and an influx of people, covering far more than Britain’s relationship with Europe. It makes an excellent scapegoat for the government’s failure to provide housing and public services. It has been so expertly blamed for bringing down wages that this has become received wisdom, despite almost nowhere being true. Free movement, on the other hand, can be understood more easily in terms of rights and security – not just for migrants in the UK, but for British citizens and workers.

As YouGov’s poll question explains, free movement would be a reciprocal agreement between post-Brexit Britain and the EU, enhancing UK citizens’ rights. We would get the right to live and work freely over an entire continent. Even if you might not want to exercise the right yourself, studying abroad might be something you want to preserve for your children. Even if you might not retire to France or Spain, you might well know someone who has, or wants to.

Perhaps most importantly, free movement makes British workers more secure. Migrants will come to the UK regardless of whether or not free movement agreements are in place; without the automatic right to work, many will be forced to work illegally and will become hyper-exploited. Removing migrants’ access to public funds and benefits – a policy which was in the Labour manifesto – would have a similar effect, forcing migrants to take any work they could find.

At present, Labour is in danger of falling into a similar trap to that of the main Remain campaigns in the EU referendum. Its manifesto policy was for an “economy first Brexit”, in other words, compromising on free movement but implying that it might be retained in order to get access to the single market. This fudge undeniably worked. In the longer term, though, basing your case for free movement entirely on what is good for the economy is exactly the mistake made by previous governments. Labour could grasp the nettle: argue from the left for free movement and for a raft of reforms that raise wages, build homes and make collective bargaining and trade unions stronger.

Making the case for free movement sounds like a more radical task than making the case for immigration more generally – and it is. But it is also more achievable, because continued free movement is a clear, viable policy that draws the debate away from controlling net migration and towards transforming the economy so that everyone prospers. Just as with the left’s prospects of electoral success in general, bold ideas will fare better than centrist fudges that give succour to the right’s narratives.

 

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TV show ideas better than the Game of Thrones showrunners’ series about slavery
July 20th, 2017, 06:35 PM

Beep Show: 25 minutes of constant annoying beep sounds.

So David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the showrunners on Game of Thrones, have announced their next TV idea: a revisionist piece where slavery never ended in America. The response was... not good. As Ira Madison III wrote for the Daily Beast, “this harebrained idea serves as yet another reminder that the imaginations of white men can be incredibly myopic... this show sounds stupid as hell.” So I and the New Statesman web team came up with our suggestions for TV shows we’d rather watch. Please enjoy.

The Office, except it’s your office, every day, from 9-5, from now until you’re 70.

Blackadder, but it’s just about fucking snakes.

Pingu, but after the icecaps have melted.

A children’s TV show about a time-travelling grammar-obsessed medical pedant called Doctor Whom.

A Series Of Unfortunate Events, but it’s just me, trying to talk to people in various social settings.

The Great British Hake Off: who has the best medium to large seawater fish averaging from 1 to 8 pounds?

Gilmore Girl. Lorelai is dead.

Brooklyn 99. Let’s go buy an ice cream in New York City, baby!

Come Dine With Me. The host only cooks one meal and other contestants fight for it.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: Alan Sugar selling broomsticks in Romford market.

Match of the Day, but it’s just about actual wooden matches.

One Tree Hill. It’s just a tree on a hill.

House of Cards. It’s a man building a – ok I think you get where we’re going with this now.

Knife Swap: what happens when gangs trade territories?

Recess: a provincial MP goes home and sorts out his guttering.

Blue Planet: on the ground in the smurf community.

Transparent: Your TV, replaced with glass.

Game of Thrones, without the violence against women.

Friends, but without modern medicine so all the friends die by age 25. Except Ross. Ross lives.

Beep Show: 25 minutes of constant annoying beep sounds.

Rugrats, but it’s just one long tracking shot of a rat-infested rug.

A talking head countdown starring minor British celebrities but instead of the best comedies of the 1970s or whatever they’re just ranking other talking head countdowns starring minor British celebrities.

30 Rocks: seven sweet, sweet hours of unfiltered footage of 30 motionless rocks.

Live footage of the emotional breakdown I’m having while writing this article.

The Good Wife: she’s just super sweet and likes making everyone cookies!

Stranger Things, but it’s about the time that stranger walked towards you and you both moved right and then both moved left to avoid each other and oh my God how is this still happening.

Parks and Recreation: Just a couple o’ pals having fun in the park!

Who Do You Think You Are? Just loads of your ancestors asking you how you even sleep at night.

The Crown: some really graphic childbirth footage playing on repeat.

Downtown Abbey: nuns in inner city Chicago.

Peeky Blinders: a study of neighbourhood curtain twitchers in a Belfast suburb.

DIY: SOS. The emergency services are called every episode!

The Big Bang Theory.

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The NS Podcast #226: Pay and Political reads
July 20th, 2017, 06:35 PM

The New Statesman politics podcast.

Helen is back and, together with Stephen, explores the politics of pay scandal at the BBC. From John Humphrys to Match of the Day, who do they think is worth what? And which political books do they recommend for the summer break? Plus, you ask us about the Conservatives' attempt to free themselves of the European Court of Justice - is it so they can bring back the death penalty?

 

Quotes of the episode:

Helen on BBC pay: “Jeremy Bowen got shot in the head, he will go to Syria. Send Nick Knowles to Syria and we can see whether or not he’s worth £200k.”

Stephen on being recognised from the telly: “‘Oh, do you live in this block of flats?’ – ‘Yeah’ – ‘But I’ve just seen you on the Marr Program!’”.

Helen on The One Show: “You know what really cheered me up? That both Alex Jones and Matt Baker are in the same pay band.”

Stephen on Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy: “You really feel a sense of loss at the end – because the family become such a big part of your life.” 

 

You can subscribe to the podcast through iTunes here or with this RSS feed: http://rss.acast.com/newstatesman, or listen using the player below.

>

Want to give us feedback on our podcast, or have an idea for something we should cover?

Visit newstatesman.com/podcast for more details and how to contact us.

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Marathon Man and a marvellously gruesome dentist's drill
July 20th, 2017, 06:35 PM

William Goldman's 1974 novel is adapted for BBC Radio 4.

“Is it safe?” – perhaps the most penetrating line William Goldman ever wrote, repeated many times and with a tantalising disgust during the famous tooth-drilling scene in the 1976 movie of Marathon Man, starring Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier. Is it safe? In this swift radio adaptation of Goldman’s 1974 novel (15 July, 2.30pm), the line gets the same treatment. Repeated until it’s almost sung, while the hero Tom Levy (Jack Lowden), an innocent history postgrad, suffers at the hands of an ageing Nazi dentist gloatingly come to NYC to collect his stash of diamonds stolen from Jewish prisoners in Auschwitz.

I’m not convinced that this 58-minute radio version would make much sense to anybody who hadn’t seen the movie. It’s very well performed (British actor Lowden’s American accent unusually casual) but as with all radio versions of famous movies I find myself fixating – to the exclusion of almost any other sensation – over which lines are going to be retained. Happily, my favourite remark turned up: “You’re much too trusting. It’s going to cause you grief someday. Welcome to someday.”

Marathon Man was a far better movie than it ever was a book, parading all the good habits of cinema at the time, the very definition of what a thriller should be: a merciless succession of exciting images and scenes. On the radio, that’s harder. But the director (Kirsty Williams) resisted the temptation to go overboard with a too-busy soundscape (the drilling scene is most certainly retained, natch, and marvellously gruesome).

Of course, there was something powerfully whimsical in its being set in 1976 – people using landlines, mentions of Nixon, etc – but thankfully there was no effort to make the case for “how little has changed”. The adaptor, Stephen Keyworth, didn’t even go to town with the street protests about pollution and bombs in Paris cafés of the original story. The truth is that everything has changed, and everybody knows it. Watching, reading or listening to Marathon Man is more than anything lulling – the protests somehow nicer, the bombs less violent. None of us like the new news. We all prefer the old news. Is it safe? Hell, no. 

Photo: Getty
Sheepwrecked: how the Lake District shows up World Heritage's flaws
July 20th, 2017, 06:35 PM

Here's hoping future statements about farming and the environment aren't quite so sheepish.

“Extremists like George Monbiot would destroy the Lake District,” tweeted Eric Robson, presenter of Radio 4’s Gardener’s Questions. But he’s “just standing up for nature”, others shot back in Monbiot’s defence. The cause of the clash? The park’s new World Heritage status and the continuing debate over the UK’s “sheep-wrecked” countryside.

Tension is such you can almost hear Cumbria’s Vikings chuckling in their hogback graves – for sheep farming still defines the Lakes as much as any poem. Hilltop farmers, like Lizzie Weir and Derek Scrimegeour, have sweated the landscape into shape over generations. And while Wordsworth may have wandered lonely as a cloud, a few hundred pairs of pricked ears were likely ruminating nearby.

UNESCO’s World Heritage committee now officially supports this pro-farm vision: “The most defining feature of the region, which has deeply shaped the cultural landscape, is a long-standing and continuing agro-pastoral tradition,” says the document which recommends the site for approval. 

And there’s much to like about the award: the region’s small, outdoor farms are often embedded in their local community and focused on improving the health and quality of their stock – a welcome reminder of what British farms can do at their best. Plus, with Brexit on the horizon and UK megafarms on the rise, farmers like these need all the spotlight they can get.

But buried in the details of the bid document is a table showing that three-quarters of the area's protected sites are in an “unfavourable condition”. So it is depressing that farming’s impact on biodiversity appears to have been almost entirely overlooked. Whether you agree with the extent of George Monbiot’s vision for Rewilding or not, there are clearly questions about nibbled forests and eroded gullies that need to be addressed – which are not mentioned in the report from UNESCO’s  lead advisory body, ICOMOS, nor the supplementary notes on nature conservation from IUCN.

How could so little scrutiny have been applied? The answer may point to wider problems with the way the World Heritage program presently works – not just in Cumbria but around the world.

In the Lake District’s case, the bid process is set-up to fail nature. When the convention was started back in the 1970s, sites could be nominated under two categories, either “cultural” or “natural”, with the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) advising on the first, and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) on the second.

Then in 1992 a new category of “cultural landscape” was introduced to recognise places where the “combined works of nature and man” are exceptional. This means such sites are always evaluated principally by ICOMOS, giving them more resources to research and shape the verdict – and limiting the input IUCN is able to make.

Another weakness is that the evaluation bodies can only follow a state’s choice of category. So if a state nominates a site as a Cultural Landscape, then considerations about issues like biodiversity can easily end up taking a back seat.

According to Tim Badman, director of IUCN’s World Heritage Programme, this situation is in need of redress. “The way in which this separation of nature and culture works is increasingly out of tune and counter-productive,” he says. “Every natural site has some kind of relationship with people, and every cultural site has some major conservation interest, even if it might not be globally significant. We should collaborate much more to make that a virtue of the system.”

The more you think about it, the madder the notion of a “Cultural Landscape” sounds. Landscapes are, after all, inherently scoped out by man, and there is little in the natural world that humanity has left untouched. Especially those in Western Europe and especially those, like Cumbria, that have been felled and farmed by a succession of historic invaders.

Relationships between advisory bodies are also not the only failing in UNESCO’s approach; relationships between nations and the convention can be problematic too. At this month’s meeting of the committee in Poland, it was decided that the Great Barrier Reef would, once again – and despite shocking evidence of its decline – not be on UNESCO’s “In Danger” list. It prompts the question, what on earth is the list for?

The reluctance of many nations to have their sites listed as In Danger is a mixed blessing, says Badman. In some cases, the prospect of being listed can motivate reform. But it is also a flawed tool – failing to include costed action plans – and causing some governments to fear attacks from their domestic opposition parties, or a decline in their tourism.

On top of this, there is the more generalised politicking and lobbying that goes on. Professor Lynn Meskell, an Anthropologist at Stanford University, is concerned that, over the years, the institution “has become more and more political”. At the most recent session of the World Heritage Committee earlier this month, she found nominations being used to inflame old conflicts, a continuing regional dominance by Europe, and a failure to open up many “at risk” sites for further discussion. “All Yemen’s sites are in danger, for instance” she says, “yet they couldn’t afford to even send one person."

Perhaps most challenging of all is the body’s response to climate change. At the recent committee gathering, Australia raised the subject by way of suggesting it cannot be held solely be responsible for the decline of the Great Barrier Reef. And Turkey attempted to water down a reference to the Paris Climate Agreement, claiming the language used was overly “technical” and that the delegates present were too inexpert to comment.

According to Tim Badman, climate change is certainly an area that needs further work, not least because World Heritage’s present policy on the subject is now a decade old. Even the most ambitious interpretation of the Paris Climate Agreement would still see very significant damage done to Heritage sites around the world, Badman says.

There is hope of change, however. For the most polite yet sturdy response to Turkey’s objections – or, as the chair ironically puts it “this very small ecological crisis” – I recommend watching these encouraging reactions from Portugal, Phillippines and Finland (2h30) -  a push-back on technical objections that Meskell says is rare to see. IUCN will also be producing the second edition of their World Heritage Outlook this November.

Positions on the Lake District’s farms will also hopefully be given further thought. Flaws within World Heritage’s approach may have helped pull wool over the committee’s eyes, but future debate should avoid being quite so sheepish.

Photo: Getty
The Macron Con: Why Emmanuel Macron isn't a liberal hero
July 20th, 2017, 06:35 PM

A summer series.

Each week, I'll examine an area of the new French president's politics that doesn't quite live up to the hype.

#1: The French President's unhealthy obsession with symbolism

#2: Emmanuel Macron's "feminism"

#3: How Macron's media strategy has French journalists worried (to be published)


This list will be updated throughout the summer as the series continues.

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How to end the Gulf stand off? The West should tell Qatar to reform its foreign policy
July 20th, 2017, 06:35 PM

Former defence secretary Geoff Hoon on the unfolding crisis in the Gulf. 

Only one group stands to benefit from a continuation of the crisis in Gulf: The Quartet, as they are now being called. Last week, The United Arab Emirates foreign minister tweeted that Qatar and its Gulf Cooperation Council neighbours are heading for a "long estrangement". We should take him at his word.

The European political establishment has been quick to dismiss the boycott by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt as naïve, and a strategic mistake. The received wisdom now is that they have acted impulsively, and that any payoff will be inescapably pyrrhic. I’m not so sure.

Another view: Qatar is determined to stand up to its Gulf neighbours

Jean-Yves Le Drian, France's foreign minister, was in the region over the weekend to see if he could relay some of his boss’s diplomatic momentum. He has offered to help mediate with Kuwait, clearly in the belief that this is the perfect opportunity to elevate France back to the top table. But if President Emmanuel Macron thinks this one will be as straightforward as a Donald Trump handshake, he should know that European charm doesn’t function as well in the 45 degree desert heat (even if some people call him the Sun King).

Western mediation has so far proceeded on the assumption that both sides privately know they will suffer if this conflict drags on. The US secretary of state Rex Tillerson judged that a Qatari commitment to further counter-terrorism measures might provide sufficient justification for a noble reversal. But he perhaps underestimates the seriousness of the challenge being made to Qatar. This is not some poorly-judged attempt to steal a quick diplomatic win over an inferior neighbour.

Qatar’s foreign policy is of direct and existential concern to the other governments in the Gulf. They will not let Qatar off the hook. And even more than that, why should they? Qatar has enormous diplomatic and commercial clout for its size, but that would evaporate in an instant if companies and governments were forced to choose between Doha and the Quartet, whose combined GDP is almost ten times that of their former ally. Iran, Turkey and Russia might stay on side. But Qatar would lose the US and Europe, where most of its soft power has been developed. Qatar’s success has been dependent on its ability to play both sides. If it loses that privilege, as it would in the event of an interminable cold war in the Gulf, then the curtains could come down.

Which is why, if they wanted to badly enough, Le Drian and Tillerson could end this conflict tomorrow. Qatar’s foreign policy has been concerning for the past decade. It has backed virtually every losing side in the Arab world, and caused a significant amount of destruction in the process. In Syria, Libya, Egypt and Yemen, Qatar has turned a blind eye to the funding of Islamic revolutionaries with the financial muscle to topple incumbent regimes. Its motives are clear; influence over the emergent republics, as it had in Egypt for a year under Mohamed Morsi. But as we review the success of this policy from the perspective of 2017, it seems clear that all that has been achieved is a combination of civil unrest and civil war. The experiment has failed.

Moreover, the Coalition is not going to lift sanctions until Doha suspends its support for the Muslim Brotherhood. When Western leaders survey the Gulf and consider who they should support, they observe two things: firstly, that the foreign policy of the Quartet is much more aligned with their own (it doesn’t seem likely to me that any European or American company would prefer to see a revolution in Dubai instead of a continuation of the present arrangement), and secondly, that Qatar would fold immediately if they applied any significant pressure. The Al Thani ruling family has bet its fortune and power on trans-Atlantic support; it is simply not credible that they would turn to the West’s enemies in the event that an ultimatum was issued. Doha might even welcome an excuse to pause its costly and ineffective programmes. Even if that involves some short term embarrassment. It is hardly going to lose support at home, with the highest GDP per capita in the world.

It would be necessary to make sure that the Coalition understands that it will have to pay a price for decisive Western intervention. The world will be a more dangerous place if our allies get the impression they can freely bully any smaller rival, knowing that the West will always come down on their side. That is however no great hurdle to action; it might even be a positive thing if we can at the same time negotiate greater contributions to counter-terrorism or refugee funding.

Unfortunately the reason why none of this is likely to happen is partly that the West has lost a lot of confidence in its ability to resolve issues in the Middle East since 2003, and partly because it fears for its interests in Doha and the handsome Qatari contributions in Western capitals. This cautious assessment is wrong and will be more harmful to Qatar and the aforementioned interests. The Quartet has no incentive to relent, it can’t afford to and will profit from commercial uncertainty in Doha the longer this drags on. If the West really wants this to end now, it must tell Qatar to reform its foreign policy or face sanctions from a more threatening ally.

Geoffrey Hoon was the UK defence secretary from 1999 to 2005.  

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Qatar is determined to stand up to its Gulf neighbours – but at what price?
July 20th, 2017, 06:35 PM

The tensions date back to the maverick rule of Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.

For much of the two decades plus since Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani deposed his father to become emir of Qatar, the tiny gas-rich emirate’s foreign policy has been built around two guiding principles: differentiating itself from its Gulf neighbours, particularly the regional Arab hegemon Saudi Arabia, and insulating itself from Saudi influence. Over the past two months, Hamad’s strategy has been put to the test. From a Qatari perspective it has paid off. But at what cost?

When Hamad became emir in 1995, he instantly ruffled feathers. He walked out of a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) because, he believed, Saudi Arabia had jumped the queue to take on the council’s rotating presidency. Hamad also spurned the offer of mediation from the then-President of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan. This further angered his neighbours, who began making public overtures towards Khalifa, the deposed emir, who was soon in Abu Dhabi and promising a swift return to power in Doha. In 1996, Hamad accused Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE of sponsoring a coup attempt against Hamad, bringing GCC relations to a then-all-time low.

Read more: How to end the stand off in the Gulf

The spat was ultimately resolved, as were a series of border and territory disputes between Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, but mistrust of Hamad - and vice versa - has lingered ever since. As crown prince, Hamad and his key ally Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani had pushed for Qatar to throw off what they saw as the yoke of Saudi dominance in the Gulf, in part by developing the country’s huge gas reserves and exporting liquefied gas on ships, rather than through pipelines that ran through neighbouring states. Doing so freed Qatar from the influence of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, the Saudi-dominated oil cartel which sets oil output levels and tries to set oil market prices, but does not have a say on gas production. It also helped the country avoid entering into a mooted GCC-wide gas network that would have seen its neighbours control transport links or dictate the – likely low - price for its main natural resource.

Qatar has since become the richest per-capita country in the world. Hamad invested the windfall in soft power, building the Al Jazeera media network and spending freely in developing and conflict-afflicted countries. By developing its gas resources in joint venture with Western firms including the US’s Exxon Mobil and France’s Total, it has created important relationships with senior officials in those countries. Its decision to house a major US military base – the Al Udeid facility is the largest American base in the Middle East, and is crucial to US military efforts in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan – Qatar has made itself an important partner to a major Western power. Turkey, a regional ally, has also built a military base in Qatar.

Hamad and Hamad bin Jassem also worked to place themselves as mediators in a range of conflicts in Sudan, Somalia and Yemen and beyond, and as a base for exiled dissidents. They sold Qatar as a promoter of dialogue and tolerance, although there is an open question as to whether this attitude extends to Qatar itself. The country, much like its neighbours, is still an absolute monarchy in which there is little in the way of real free speech or space for dissent. Qatar’s critics, meanwhile, argue that its claims to promote human rights and free speech really boil down to an attempt to empower the Muslim Brotherhood. Doha funded Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups during and after the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, while Al Jazeera cheerleaded protest movements, much to the chagrin of Qatar's neighbours. They see the group as a powerful threat to their dynastic rule and argue that the Brotherhood is a “gateway drug” to jihadism. In 2013,  after Western allies became concerned that Qatar had inadvertently funded jihadist groups in Libya and Syria, Hamad was forced to step down in favour of his son Tamim. Soon, Tamim came under pressure from Qatar’s neighbours to rein in his father’s maverick policies.

Today, Qatar has a high degree of economic independence from its neighbours and powerful friends abroad. Officials in Doha reckon that this should be enough to stave off the advances of the “Quad” of countries – Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE - that have been trying to isolate the emirate since June. They have been doing this by cutting off diplomatic and trade ties, and labelling Qatar a state sponsor of terror groups. For the Quad, the aim is to end what it sees as Qatar’s disruptive presence in the region. For officials in Doha, it is an attempt to impinge on the country’s sovereignty and turn Qatar into a vassal state. So far, the strategies put in place by Hamad to insure Qatar from regional pressure have paid off. But how long can this last?

Qatar’s Western allies are also Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s. Thus far, they have been paralysed by indecision over the standoff, and after failed mediation attempts have decided to leave the task of resolving what they see as a “family affair” to the Emir of Kuwait, Sabah al-Sabah. As long as the Quad limits itself to economic and diplomatic attacks, they are unlikely to pick a side. It is by no means clear they would side with Doha in a pinch (President Trump, in defiance of the US foreign policy establishment, has made his feelings clear on the issue). Although accusations that Qatar sponsors extremists are no more true than similar charges made against Saudi Arabia or Kuwait – sympathetic local populations and lax banking regulations tend to be the major issue – few Western politicians want to be seen backing an ally, that in turn many diplomats see as backing multiple horses.

Meanwhile, although Qatar is a rich country, the standoff is hurting its economy. Reuters reports that there are concerns that the country’s massive $300bn in foreign assets might not be as liquid as many assume. This means that although it has plenty of money abroad, it could face a cash crunch if the crisis rolls on.

Qatar might not like its neighbours, but it can’t simply cut itself off from the Gulf and float on to a new location. At some point, there will need to be a resolution. But with the Quad seemingly happy with the current status quo, and Hamad’s insurance policies paying off, a solution looks some way off.

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Rising crime and fewer police show the most damaging impacts of austerity
July 20th, 2017, 06:35 PM

We need to protect those who protect us.

Today’s revelation that police-recorded crime has risen by 10 per cent across England and Wales shows one of the most damaging impacts of austerity. Behind the cold figures are countless stories of personal misery; 723 homicides, 466,018 crimes with violence resulting in injury, and 205,869 domestic burglaries to take just a few examples.

It is crucial that politicians of all parties seek to address this rising level of violence and offer solutions to halt the increase in violent crime. I challenge any Tory to defend the idea that their constituents are best served by a continued squeeze on police budgets, when the number of officers is already at the lowest level for more than 30 years.

This week saw the launch Chris Bryant's Protect The Protectors Private Member’s Bill, which aims to secure greater protections for emergency service workers. It carries on where my attempts in the last parliament left off, and could not come at a more important time. Cuts to the number of police officers on our streets have not only left our communities less safe, but officers themselves are now more vulnerable as well.

As an MP I work closely with the local neighbourhood policing teams in my constituency of Halifax. There is some outstanding work going on to address the underlying causes of crime, to tackle antisocial behaviour, and to build trust and engagement across communities. I am always amazed that neighbourhood police officers seem to know the name of every kid in their patch. However cuts to West Yorkshire Police, which have totalled more than £160m since 2010, have meant that the number of neighbourhood officers in my district has been cut by half in the last year, as the budget squeeze continues and more resources are drawn into counter-terrorism and other specialisms .

Overall, West Yorkshire Police have seen a loss of around 1,200 officers. West Yorkshire Police Federation chairman Nick Smart is clear about the result: "To say it’s had no effect on frontline policing is just a nonsense.” Yet for years the Conservatives have argued just this, with the Prime Minister recently telling MPs that crime was at a record low, and ministers frequently arguing that the changing nature of crime means that the number of officers is a poor measure of police effectiveness. These figures today completely debunk that myth.

Constituents are also increasingly coming to me with concerns that crimes are not investigated once they are reported. Where the police simply do not have the resources to follow-up and attend or investigate crimes, communities lose faith and the criminals grow in confidence.

A frequently overlooked part of this discussion is that the demands on police have increased hugely, often in some unexpected ways. A clear example of this is that cuts in our mental health services have resulted in police officers having to deal with mental health issues in the custody suite. While on shift with the police last year, I saw how an average night included a series of people detained under the Mental Health Act. Due to a lack of specialist beds, vulnerable patients were held in a police cell, or even in the back of a police car, for their own safety. We should all be concerned that the police are becoming a catch-all for the state’s failures.

While the politically charged campaign to restore police numbers is ongoing, Protect The Protectors is seeking to build cross-party support for measures that would offer greater protections to officers immediately. In February, the Police Federation of England and Wales released the results of its latest welfare survey data which suggest that there were more than two million unarmed physical assaults on officers over a 12-month period, and a further 302,842 assaults using a deadly weapon.

This is partly due to an increase in single crewing, which sees officers sent out on their own into often hostile circumstances. Morale in the police has suffered hugely in recent years and almost every front-line officer will be able to recall a time when they were recently assaulted.

If we want to tackle this undeniable rise in violent crime, then a large part of the solution is protecting those who protect us; strengthening the law to keep them from harm where possible, restoring morale by removing the pay cap, and most importantly, increasing their numbers.

Holly Lynch is the MP for Halifax. The Protect the Protectors bill will get its second reading on the Friday 20th October. 

Photo: Getty
Who should be happiest about the polls: Jeremy Corbyn, or Theresa May?
July 20th, 2017, 06:35 PM

Labour believe their small lead will only grow – but some Tories think that the only way for the opposition is down. 

Who should be happiest about the state of the polls? The intriguing feature of the polls at the moment is that all Britain’s first, second and third parties can all claim to be happy about them.

 Labour, understandably, point to their small lead over the Conservatives, the transformation in Jeremy Corbyn’s approval ratings, and the continuing popularity of the party’s platform.

And while no Labour politician is looking forward to a recession, most frontbenchers expect one, with the economic indicators all looking gloomy. That’s why the party’s narrow advantage in the polls, in of itself enough to guarantee a minority Labour government if it were borne out at an election, is seen as such good news by the leadership. They expect circumstances to extend, rather than contract the party’s small lead.

Liberal Democrat MPs are cheered, meanwhile, that the party is not suffering in the polls as it usually does outside of election season, when it tends to shrink from public view. Despite the fact their departing leader, Tim Farron, has largely only been in the news when his views about faith are up for discussion, the party actually appears to have made up a few points in the polls since the election, which is further cause for celebration.

It’s harder to find Conservative MPs in a cheery mood at the moment. Most are going into the summer recess in a state of shock, and are demoralised and deeply worried that Corbyn is on the verge of Downing Street.

But some more optimistic MPs can also, fairly, argue that the polls aren’t as bad as they ought to be. The economy is slowing, inflation is hitting take-home pay, their leader is hugely unpopular, and the party is publicly divided. Yet they are only very narrowly behind – suggesting that if they can get wages rising, ride out the downturn, resolve Brexit and unify around a new, more popular leader, they could be back on the front foot very quickly.

Their difficulty, of course, as I outline in my column this week, is that Conservative MPs cannot agree on how to get wages rising, ride out the downturn, or resolve Brexit – let alone on who their new, more popular leader might be. 

Photo: Getty
Empty highs: why throwaway plastic goes hand in hand with bankrupt consumerism
July 20th, 2017, 06:35 PM

We are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff.

A University of California study revealed this week that mankind has produced more than nine billion tonnes of plastic since the 1950s, with almost all of it ending up in landfill or the ocean. With the terrible effects of our decades-long addiction to throwaway packaging becoming increasingly apparent, it’s clear that a fresh approach is needed.

In April 2010, David Cameron set out his vision for Britain in the Conservative Party’s manifesto. Keen to show that the Tories had turned away from the "I’m Alright Jack" individualism of the 1980s, Cameron sought to fashion a softer, more inclusive brand.

The good society, Cameron argued, embraced much higher levels of personal, professional, civic and corporate responsibility. There was such a thing as society, and we’d all do well to talk to our neighbours a bit more. The Big Society, however, was roundly derided as a smokescreen for an aggressive tightening of the Government purse strings. And on the advice of his 2015 election fixer Lynton Crosby, Cameron later dropped it in favour of well-worn lines about economic security and jobs.   

While most would argue that the Big Society failed to amount to much, Cameron was at least right about one thing. We are happiest when we are part of something bigger than ourselves. No matter how much the credit card companies try to convince us otherwise, mindless individualism won’t make us nearly as contented as we’re led to believe by big conglomerates.

By any measure, we are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff. As a nation, we have run up unsecured debts of more than £350bn, which works out at £13,000 per household. Fuelled by a toxic mix of readily available credit and interest rates at historic lows, we cripple ourselves financially to feel the empty high derived from acquiring yet more stuff.

Purchasing has become a leisure pursuit, ensuring the rate at which we acquire new stuff exceeds the rate at which we can find somewhere to put it. Burdened with ever increasing amounts of stuff, consumers are forced to outsource their storage. The UK didn’t have a self-storage industry 30 years ago, but now it is the largest in Europe.

With the personal debt mountain soaring, we’d all do well to realise that we will never have enough of something we don’t need.

The growth of rampant consumerism has coincided with an explosion in demand for single-use plastic. Like the superfluous possessions we acquire, throwaway plastic packaging helps satisfy our desire to get exactly what we want without having any thought for the long-term consequences. Plastic packaging is easy and convenient, but ultimately, will do us immense harm.

In 1950, close to 1.5 million tonnes of plastic was produced globally. Today, the figure stands at more than 320 million tonnes. The vast majority of our plastic waste either ends up in landfill or the ocean, and our failure to kick the plastic habit has put is in the ludicrous position where there is set to be more plastic than fish in global seas by 2050.

There is also growing evidence that our penchant for endless throwaway plastic might be storing up serious health problems for our children later down the line. According to a University of Ghent study published earlier this year, British seafood eaters risk ingesting up to 11,000 pieces of plastic each year. The report followed UN warnings last year that cancer-causing chemicals from plastic are becoming increasingly present in the food chain.

Something must give. Unsustainable as our reliance on fast credit to finance ever more stuff, our addiction to plastic packaging is storing up serious problems for future generations. The instant gratification society, high on the dopamine rush that fades so quickly after acquiring yet another material asset, is doomed unless decisive action is forthcoming.

So what is to be done? The 2016 US documentary Minimalism points to a smarter way forward. Minimalism follows the lives of ordinary people who have shunned the rat race in favour of a simpler life with less stuff and less stress. The most poignant bit of the film features ex-broker AJ Leon recounting how he chose to forgo the glamour and riches of Wall Street for a simpler life. After a meteoric rise to the top of his profession, Leon decided to jack it all in for a more fulfilling existence.

While challenging the view that to be a citizen is to be a consumer is easier said than done, there are small changes that we can enact today that will make a huge difference. We simply have no choice but to dramatically reduce the amount of plastic that we can consume. If we don’t, we may soon have to contend with the ocean being home to more plastic than fish.

Like plastic, our bloated consumer culture is a disaster waiting to happen. There must be a better way.

Sian Sutherland is co-founder of campaign group A Plastic Planet which is campaigning for a plastic free-aisle in supermarkets.

Photo: Getty
Stanley Johnson's Diary
July 20th, 2017, 06:35 PM

The author on iguana burgers, cricket with Boris – and what Russia really knew about Brexit.

My week began with the annual Earl Spencer v Boris Johnson cricket match, held at Charles Spencer’s Althorp House in Northamptonshire. This is a truly wonderful event in a wonderful setting. Boris’s team has not yet notched up a victory, even though we once fielded Kevin Pietersen. This year, we actually came close to winning. The Johnson team made 127. Charles Spencer’s, with one over left, was on 123. It was a nail-biting finish, and they finally beat us with only two balls left to bowl.

Clapping for Britain

The day after the match, I was invited to lunch at the Travellers Club to meet Alden McLaughlin, the premier of the Cayman Islands, and other members of his government who were travelling with him in London. I discovered that his vision for the islands’ future extended far beyond the financial sector, central though that is. He was, for example, proud that the Cayman Islands – like other UK overseas territories – contribute enormously to the UK’s biological diversity.

“The blue iguana is endemic to the Cayman Islands,” McLaughlin explained, “and it is one of the great environmental success stories of our time. It has been brought back from the brink of extinction.” If the blue iguana is on the way to recovery, it seems that the green iguana is superabundant. “We must have a million of them,” he said. “They are getting everywhere. We are working on a strategy to deal with them.” I told him that I once had an iguana burger in Honduras. He shook his head. “We don’t eat iguanas in the Caymans.”

Premier McLaughlin was also able to offer a useful insight into Britain’s current Brexit-related tensions. In 1962, the Cayman Islands were forced to decide whether to stay with Jamaica, as Jamaica became independent, or to stick with Britain as a separate crown colony. “We decided by acclamation,” McLaughlin told me. “One side clapped loudest; the other side clapped longest. The loudest side won. We stayed with Britain.” Like the latest Johnson-Spencer cricket match, it was a close-run thing.

Light touch

Last week, we went to the first night of the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall and, in the course of an inspiring evening, heard Igor Levit, born in Nizhny Novgorod, give us a haunting version of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto. There were mutterings afterwards that he shouldn’t have chosen Liszt’s transcription of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy as his encore, but if Levit meant this as a political statement – and he probably did – it was done with the lightest of touches. He doesn’t paint his message in huge capital letters on the side of a bus.

An open goal

My sister, Hilary, who emigrated to Australia in 1969, has been visiting. We spent two days on Exmoor in the middle of the week, on the family farm where we grew up, before coming back to London for the launch of my 25th book and tenth novel. Kompromat is a satirical political thriller that aims to recount the real story behind both the election of Donald Trump as US president and the pro-Brexit vote in last year’s referendum. There is a quotation from the former London mayor Ken Livingstone on the front cover: “It’s brilliant and, who knows, maybe it’s true.”

In interviews, I have been asked whether I really believe that the Russians might have been behind both Trump’s victory and Brexit. My response is simple. In the US, the idea of Russian interference in the election is being taken very seriously. Over here, we don’t seem to be bothered. I asked myself, when I started writing Kompromat in February, why wouldn’t the Russians have taken a shot at an open goal?

My fictional British prime minister, Jeremy Hartley, is a deeply patriotic man, convinced that the only way to take Britain out of the EU is to call a referendum – with a little help from his “friends”. But I don’t want to give too much away. Channel 4 has bought the rights and will be programming six half-hour episodes.

All in the family

Hilary and I went to Wimbledon for the ladies’ final as the guests of her old friend David Spearing. Usually referred to by tennis addicts as “the man in the black hat”, he first became a Wimbledon steward in 1974 and, even though he has lived in Abu Dhabi for the past 50 years, he never misses a season. As the longest-serving steward, he gets to sit (wearing his famous hat) in the “family box” at Wimbledon, the one where close relatives of the players are invariably placed.

We met Spearing in the officials’ buttery during one of the intervals (Venus Williams had just been walloped by Garbiñe Muguruza). Later, as he walked us back to our seats, people kept stopping to ask him for a selfie. “I’ve been on duty in the ‘family box’ for 20 years,” he explained. “They all know me, from the TV or in person, seeing me sitting there hour after hour. The first time Andy Murray won the championship, he climbed up into the box to hug his girlfriend. I noticed he had missed his mother, who was sitting over to the side. ‘Don’t forget about Mum, Andy,’ I told him!” 

Stanley Johnson’s novel “Kompromat” is published  by Oneworld

Photo: Getty
Tory politician Andrea Leadsom calls Jane Austen one of our “greatest living authors”
July 20th, 2017, 06:35 PM

A zombie author for a zombie government.

Whenever a Conservative stands at the Despatch Box these days, your mole can’t help feeling that they are auditioning for the role of Prime Minister. Particularly with Andrea Leadsom, who tried to run against Theresa May last time, and is rumoured to have the leadership in her sights again.

So it inspired both joy and horror when the Leader of the House, and potential future PM, stood up in the Commons today to celebrate women’s achievements – and called Jane Austen “one of our greatest living authors”.

Referring to the author’s place on the £10 note – which has already been tarnished with a quote from the deceitful Pride and Prejudice character Caroline Bingley – Leadsom informed the chamber:

“I would just add one other great lady to that lovely list, who I’m delighted to join in celebrating, and that’s that of Jane Austen, who will feature on the new ten pound note, which I think is another – one of our greatest living authors…”

As MPs began to giggle, she added: “Greatest EVER authors! Greatest ever authors…well, I think many of us probably wish she were still living.”

Although it was a slip of the tongue, your mole assumes that Leadsom has a certain zombie Prime Minister on her mind, and has hence been imagining zombie authors too. Or perhaps, as a staunch Brexiteer, she would rather we were still living in an age when Austen was alive. A time when women were merely required to feverishly embroider until they met a man and had babies (very important if one wishes to be a good Prime Minister), and men rode around on horses being horrible to them until they succumbed.

As one tweeter quipped, she probably thinks Pride and Prejudice is a critique of modern suburbia.

Also, she missed some people out:

Parliament screengrab
The Conservative problem? They don't know what they want from Brexit
July 20th, 2017, 06:35 PM

The government sees leaving the EU as an objective in of itself, which is one reason why it is bungling it. 

What are the areas of contention in the first stage of the Brexit talks? There are two big stumbling blocks: the so-called “divorce bill” and the rights of the three million citizens of the European Union living in Britain and of the British diaspora living in the EU27.

The “divorce bill” relates to the question of how much the United Kingdom owes to the bloc. It relates to programmes and budgets agreed on and in some cases begun before the UK voted to leave. As I’ve written before, the divorce analogy doesn’t really work: it’s much more like leaving a dinner with friends before the bill has arrived. If you have ordered dessert, and it has already been whipped up, you still need to leave enough to cover your share even if you are skipping out on the final course.

The United Kingdom has agreed in principle that it will pay its outstanding commitments to the European Union. What is keeping the sides apart is a different account of how much the United Kingdom owes, not whether or not the United Kingdom owes money.

There are good arguments on both sides. Obviously, the United Kingdom should pay for budgets it already agreed to while still in the EU. But, as British budgetary contributions have paid for assets – buildings, software,  and so on – the United Kingdom has a strong case that some of the cost of those assets should be deducted from the final total. And, with the British government seeking a Brexit deal that means the UK continues to participate in EU-wide research and security programmes, there is a case, too, that the cost of the UK’s exit bill should take that into account. (If the United Kingdom is still paying into and participating in Europol, the EU-wide security programme, then those payments should be deducted from the Brexit bill.)

But the difficulty is that the United Kingdom hasn’t laid out what it sees as a reasonable calculation and expectation for the bill, which is one reason why negotiations on this area aren’t proceeding.

That speaks to the wider problem of the government’s Brexit policy. Although there are a few exceptions, most Leave-backing Conservative MPs don’t really have a plan for after Brexit: leaving is a destination, not a staging post to anything else. It is the end of the process, when of course the most important questions around Britain’s Brexit deal hinge on the shape and size of the British economy and the direction of British policy afterwards.

It was summed up by Michael Gove’s one-word answer to Mary Creagh’s question about how the United Kingdom would regulate the chemicals industry after Brexit. This is an industry that is Britain’s largest manufacturing export sector – it exports around £50bn a year – adds more than £15bn to the British economy and is of increasing importance to UK plc.

 His response?

“Better.”

Photo: Getty
Lowering the voting age is the best way to protect the franchise we've fought so hard for
July 20th, 2017, 06:35 PM

Empowering young people is the best way to renew civic and political engagement.

Too many believe that politics isn’t working for them. That those who make decisions are not acting in their interests. And too often, narrow interests win over the wider public interest. Our economy isn’t working either. It never will until we repair our fragile politics.

When I was leader of Oldham Council I recognised that to reform, it must open up. It needed to bring forward ideas and challenges from all those who are affected by decisions taken in their name.

We gave constitutional rights for the youth council to move motions and reports at our full council meeting. We opened up our meetings with live web-streaming and questions from all residents. And we embraced social media, combined with instant comments, which were shown in the chamber during debates.

It opened up democracy and gave councillors an insight into issues which affect young people. But two things stood out. The first was that many of these issues are the same ones which affect the wider public. But they are affected in different ways by decisions or the lack of action by government. Second, and most importantly, while we were engaging young people they had no say over who was making decisions on their behalf.

So of crucial importance to me is how we bolster democracy to weather the challenges it faces today and in the future. Recent events at home and abroad have convinced me of the importance of this. There are two separate approaches that parliament must take. Firstly, we must devolve more power from central government to local communities. And secondly, we must at all costs renew civic and political engagement here in the UK. I’ve come to believe that getting more and more young people engaged in politics is fundamental to realising this second point. And I see lowering the voting age as key to cementing this.

I hear the arguments against this loud and clear. Eighteen is the official age of independence. Eighteen is when someone forms their world view. And 18 is when reasoned, judgemental thought suddenly kicks in. On that basis, the years preceding that are presumably some kind of wilderness of rational thinking and opinion forming. Someone even tweeted at me this week to inform me that under-18s don’t know what they want for dinner, let alone how to vote.

Needless to say, I find all these points unconvincing and in some cases dismissive and patronising.

I speak with people even younger than 16 who have coherent views on politics, often a match for any adult. They even know what they want for dinner! And I am of the strong belief that empowering young people through a wider enfranchisement will speed up this development. Even better if votes at 16 is accompanied by compulsory political education in the preceding years.

So if your argument is that young people are too immature, that they lack political knowledge to be given the vote, or that they aren’t responsible enough – then I say to you, bring on lowering the voting age! As my argument is that empowering young people to vote will help overcome these challenges where they exist.

But where do other countries sit on lowering the voting age? Admittedly, among western democracies, the UK would be taking a bold step-forward. In Europe, it’s only Austria where all 16-year-olds can vote. There are some patchwork exceptions to this closer to home. For example, the voting age on the Isle of Man is 16. And this week we heard that the Welsh Assembly is considering lowering the voting age to 16 for local elections.

Outside of these scant examples, there is little precedent for change. However, we shouldn’t find ourselves cowed by this. Our past is littered with bold actions, proud speeches and even lives lost to win and defend the right to vote.

200 years ago on Tandle Hill in Royton hundreds of protestors, who had travelled from nearby mill towns like Oldham and Rochdale, gathered together. They were preparing to march on Peters Field in Manchester on a summer’s day in August 1819. What was at stake was a greater say in parliamentary decisions, at a time of famine and widespread poverty. Non-land-owning workers were entirely excluded from the franchise. By the end of the day, government cavalry had cut down 14 protesters, and injured hundreds more. In 1832 only men renting or owning valuable land were given the vote. And it wasn’t until 1918 that all men were included in the franchise.

This month we remember the 100-year anniversary of the Battle of Passchendaele. The sacrifices made during the First World War by our working-class men and boys, 250,000 of whom were under 18, was a catalyst for extending the vote to all men.

Next year we celebrate 100 years since the start of women’s suffrage. In Oldham, Annie Kenney and Emmeline Pankhurst fought tirelessly. They would both be arrested before seeing that privilege granted to only some women in 1918. Today it is sobering to think that women didn’t have the vote before 1918.

And it was only in 1970 that the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18, allowing teenagers to vote for the first time in the UK. Prevalent then were exactly the same arguments that stop 16- and 17-year-olds voting today.

While we recognise the fight of others, we fail in our duty if we believe the fight for democracy is settled.

So I draw inspiration from how the franchise has steadily grown throughout our history. And I reflect on the acts of courage, grit and determination that have won us that change. With the extension of the franchise have come the liberties, freedoms and values that make our society what it is today. It hasn’t happened of its own accord. Lives have been lost and bold steps have been taken for us to enjoy placing that cross alongside the candidate of our choosing.

This cannot be seen as a way to shift the political debate to young voters either. Many older voters, including many of my friends and family, feel that politics isn’t working for them either. Reducing the voting age isn’t the silver bullet to address that disconnect, but it is vital to strengthening connect between decision makers and those who pay taxes.

I welcome the debate on lowering the voting age. A debate about once again spreading the freedoms and responsibilities of our society to many more people. And I’ll match arguments against this every step of the way. Because I am clear in my mind that defending the franchise and extending the franchise are two sides of the same coin.

Jim McMahon is the Labour and Co-operative MP for Oldham West and Royton.

Photo: Getty
Netflix's Ozark is overstuffed – not to mention tonally weird
July 20th, 2017, 06:35 PM

Could the channel use a hit? Every time my subscription leaves my bank account, I think again that it could.

The main reason why Ozark, the new Netflix series, feels so underpowered has to do with its star, Jason Bateman (who also directs): a good actor who badly wants for charisma, he simply can’t carry it alone. Watching the first few episodes, I kept thinking of Jon Hamm in Mad Men and (a better example here) Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad, both of whom played, as does Bateman, characters around which the plots of their respective series turned. When they were on screen, which was often, it was all but impossible to tear your eyes from them; when they were off it, you felt like you were only biding your time until they returned. But when Bateman disappears from view, you hardly notice. In fact, it feels like a plus: at least now you might get to see a bit more of the deft and adorable Laura Linney.

In Ozark, Bateman is Marty, an outwardly square guy whose big secret is that he is a money launderer for the second biggest drugs cartel in Mexico. When the series opens, he and his wife Wendy (Linney) and their two children are living in Chicago, where he nominally works as a financial advisor.

By the end of the first episode, however, they’re on their way to the Lake of the Ozarks in rural Missouri. Marty’s partner, Bruce, has been on the fiddle, and the cartel, having summarily executed him, now wants Marty both to pay back the cash, and to establish a few new businesses in which future income may be cleaned far from the prying eyes of the law enforcement agencies. If this sounds derivative, it is. We’re in the realm of Breaking Bad, only where that show gave us out-of-control Bunsen burners and flesh-eating chemicals, this one is more preoccupied with percentages and margins.

Where’s the friction? Well, not only is the FBI on Marty’s tail, his wife has been cheating on him, with the result that their marriage is now just another of his business arrangements. The locals (think Trump supporters with beards as big as pine trees) have proved thus far to be on the unfriendly side, and having paid off their debts, the only house Marty can afford has a cliché – sorry, crotchety old guy – living in the basement. On paper, admittedly, this all sounds moderately promising. But hilarity does not ensue. As dull as the Lake of the Ozarks when the tourist season is over, not even Linney can make Bill Dubuque’s dialogue come alive. Her character should be traumatised: before they left Chicago, the cartel, for reasons I do not completely understand, pushed her podgy lover – splat! – off his balcony. Instead, she’s fussing about the crotchety old guy’s sexism.

Ozark is overstuffed and tonally weird, so I won’t be binge-watching this one. This completes rather a bad run for me and Netflix; after the lame new series of House of Cards and the egregious Gypsy, this is the third of its shows on the trot to bore me rigid. Could the channel use a hit? Every time my subscription leaves my bank account, I think again that it could.

And now to The Sweet Makers: A Tudor Treat (19 July, 8pm), in which we hear the sound of the “living history” barrel being scraped so loudly, those attending the meeting at which it was commissioned must surely have worn ear defenders. Basically, this is a series in which four confectioners “go back in time” to discover how their forebears used sugar (first, the Tudors; next week, the Georgians).

What it means in practice is lots of Generation Game-style faffing with candied roses and coriander comfits by people in long skirts and silly hats – a hey-nonny-nonny fiesta of pointlessness that is itself a sugar coating for those nasty things called facts (ie a bit of tokenism about slavery and our ancestors’ trouble with their teeth).

Resident expert, food historian Dr Annie Gray, strained to give the proceedings urgency, sternly reminding the confectioners that the sugar house they’d spent hours building did not yet have a roof. But who cared if it didn’t? Destined to be eaten by fake Tudor guests at a fake Tudor banquet, it wasn’t as if anyone was going to lose their head for it – not even, alas, at Broadcasting House. 

Lexit: the EU is a neoliberal project, so let's do something different when we leave it
July 20th, 2017, 06:35 PM

Brexit affords the British left a historic opportunity for a decisive break with EU market liberalism.

The Brexit vote to leave the European Union has many parents, but "Lexit" – the argument for exiting the EU from the left – remains an orphan. A third of Labour voters backed Leave, but they did so without any significant leadership from the Labour Party. Left-of-centre votes proved decisive in determining the outcome of a referendum that was otherwise framed, shaped, and presented almost exclusively by the right. A proper left discussion of the issues has been, if not entirely absent, then decidedly marginal – part of a more general malaise when it comes to developing left alternatives that has begun to be corrected only recently, under Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell.

Ceding Brexit to the right was very nearly the most serious strategic mistake by the British left since the ‘70s. Under successive leaders Labour became so incorporated into the ideology of Europeanism as to preclude any clear-eyed critical analysis of the actually existing EU as a regulatory and trade regime pursuing deep economic integration. The same political journey that carried Labour into its technocratic embrace of the EU also resulted in the abandonment of any form of distinctive economics separate from the orthodoxies of market liberalism.

It’s been astounding to witness so many left-wingers, in meltdown over Brexit, resort to parroting liberal economics. Thus we hear that factor mobility isn’t about labour arbitrage, that public services aren’t under pressure, that we must prioritise foreign direct investment and trade. It’s little wonder Labour became so detached from its base. Such claims do not match the lived experience of ordinary people in regions of the country devastated by deindustrialisation and disinvestment.

Nor should concerns about wage stagnation and bargaining power be met with finger-wagging accusations of racism, as if the manner in which capitalism pits workers against each other hasn’t long been understood. Instead, we should be offering real solutions – including a willingness to rethink capital mobility and trade. This places us in direct conflict with the constitutionalised neoliberalism of the EU.

Only the political savvy of the leadership has enabled Labour to recover from its disastrous positioning post-referendum. Incredibly, what seemed an unbeatable electoral bloc around Theresa May has been deftly prized apart in the course of an extraordinary General Election campaign. To consolidate the political project they have initiated, Corbyn and McDonnell must now follow through with a truly radical economic programme. The place to look for inspiration is precisely the range of instruments and policy options discouraged or outright forbidden by the EU.

A neoliberal project

The fact that right-wing arguments for Leave predominated during the referendum says far more about today’s left than it does about the European Union. There has been a great deal of myth-making concerning the latter –much of it funded, directly or indirectly, by the EU itself.

From its inception, the EU has been a top-down project driven by political and administrative elites, "a protected sphere", in the judgment of the late Peter Mair, "in which policy-making can evade the constraints imposed by representative democracy". To complain about the EU’s "democratic deficit" is to have misunderstood its purpose. The main thrust of European economic policy has been to extend and deepen the market through liberalisation, privatisation, and flexiblisation, subordinating employment and social protection to goals of low inflation, debt reduction, and increased competitiveness.

Prospects for Keynesian reflationary policies, or even for pan-European economic planning – never great – soon gave way to more Hayekian conceptions. Hayek’s original insight, in The Economic Conditions of Interstate Federalism, was that free movement of capital, goods, and labour – a "single market" – among a federation of nations would severely and necessarily restrict the economic policy space available to individual members. Pro-European socialists, whose aim had been to acquire new supranational options for the regulation of capital, found themselves surrendering the tools they already possessed at home. The national road to socialism, or even to social democracy, was closed.

The direction of travel has been singular and unrelenting. To take one example, workers’ rights – a supposed EU strength – are steadily being eroded, as can be seen in landmark judgments by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in the Viking and Laval cases, among others. In both instances, workers attempting to strike in protest at plans to replace workers from one EU country with lower-wage workers from another, were told their right to strike could not infringe upon the "four freedoms" – free movement of capital, labour, goods, and services – established by the treaties.

More broadly, on trade, financial regulation, state aid, government purchasing, public service delivery, and more, any attempt to create a different kind of economy from inside the EU has largely been forestalled by competition policy or single market regulation.

A new political economy

Given that the UK will soon be escaping the EU, what opportunities might this afford? Three policy directions immediately stand out: public ownership, industrial strategy, and procurement. In each case, EU regulation previously stood in the way of promising left strategies. In each case, the political and economic returns from bold departures from neoliberal orthodoxy after Brexit could be substantial.

While not banned outright by EU law, public ownership is severely discouraged and disadvantaged by it. ECJ interpretation of Article 106 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) has steadily eroded public ownership options. "The ECJ", argues law professor Danny Nicol, "appears to have constructed a one-way street in favour of private-sector provision: nationalised services are prima facie suspect and must be analysed for their necessity". Sure enough, the EU has been a significant driver of privatisation, functioning like a ratchet. It’s much easier for a member state to pursue the liberalisation of sectors than to secure their (re)nationalisation. Article 59 (TFEU) specifically allows the European Council and Parliament to liberalise services. Since the ‘80s, there have been single market programmes in energy, transport, postal services, telecommunications, education, and health.

Britain has long been an extreme outlier on privatisation, responsible for 40 per cent of the total assets privatised across the OECD between 1980 and 1996. Today, however, increasing inequality, poverty, environmental degradation and the general sense of an impoverished public sphere are leading to growing calls for renewed public ownership (albeit in new, more democratic forms). Soon to be free of EU constraints, it’s time to explore an expanded and fundamentally reimagined UK public sector.

Next, Britain’s industrial production has been virtually flat since the late 1990s, with a yawning trade deficit in industrial goods. Any serious industrial strategy to address the structural weaknesses of UK manufacturing will rely on "state aid" – the nurturing of a next generation of companies through grants, interest and tax relief, guarantees, government holdings, and the provision of goods and services on a preferential basis.

Article 107 TFEU allows for state aid only if it is compatible with the internal market and does not distort competition, laying out the specific circumstances in which it could be lawful. Whether or not state aid meets these criteria is at the sole discretion of the Commission – and courts in member states are obligated to enforce the commission’s decisions. The Commission has adopted an approach that considers, among other things, the existence of market failure, the effectiveness of other options, and the impact on the market and competition, thereby allowing state aid only in exceptional circumstances.

For many parts of the UK, the challenges of industrial decline remain starkly present – entire communities are thrown on the scrap heap, with all the associated capital and carbon costs and wasted lives. It’s high time the left returned to the possibilities inherent in a proactive industrial strategy. A true community-sustaining industrial strategy would consist of the deliberate direction of capital to sectors, localities, and regions, so as to balance out market trends and prevent communities from falling into decay, while also ensuring the investment in research and development necessary to maintain a highly productive economy. Policy, in this vision, would function to re-deploy infrastructure, production facilities, and workers left unemployed because of a shutdown or increased automation.

In some cases, this might mean assistance to workers or localities to buy up facilities and keep them running under worker or community ownership. In other cases it might involve re-training workers for new skills and re-fitting facilities. A regional approach might help launch new enterprises that would eventually be spun off as worker or local community-owned firms, supporting the development of strong and vibrant network economies, perhaps on the basis of a Green New Deal. All of this will be possible post-Brexit, under a Corbyn government.

Lastly, there is procurement. Under EU law, explicitly linking public procurement to local entities or social needs is difficult. The ECJ has ruled that, even if there is no specific legislation, procurement activity must "comply with the fundamental rules of the Treaty, in particular the principle of non-discrimination on grounds of nationality". This means that all procurement contracts must be open to all bidders across the EU, and public authorities must advertise contracts widely in other EU countries. In 2004, the European Parliament and Council issued two directives establishing the criteria governing such contracts: "lowest price only" and "most economically advantageous tender".

Unleashed from EU constraints, there are major opportunities for targeting large-scale public procurement to rebuild and transform communities, cities, and regions. The vision behind the celebrated Preston Model of community wealth building – inspired by the work of our own organisation, The Democracy Collaborative, in Cleveland, Ohio – leverages public procurement and the stabilising power of place-based anchor institutions (governments, hospitals, universities) to support rooted, participatory, democratic local economies built around multipliers. In this way, public funds can be made to do "double duty"; anchoring jobs and building community wealth, reversing long-term economic decline. This suggests the viability of a very different economic approach and potential for a winning political coalition, building support for a new socialist economics from the ground up.

With the prospect of a Corbyn government now tantalisingly close, it’s imperative that Labour reconciles its policy objectives in the Brexit negotiations with its plans for a radical economic transformation and redistribution of power and wealth. Only by pursuing strategies capable of re-establishing broad control over the national economy can Labour hope to manage the coming period of pain and dislocation following Brexit. Based on new institutions and approaches and the centrality of ownership and control, democracy, and participation, we should be busy assembling the tools and strategies that will allow departure from the EU to open up new political-economic horizons in Britain and bring about the profound transformation the country so desperately wants and needs.

Joe Guinan is executive director of the Next System Project at The Democracy Collaborative. Thomas M. Hanna is research director at The Democracy Collaborative.

This is an extract from a longer essay which appears in the inaugural edition of the IPPR Progressive Review.

 

 

Jeremy Corbyn. Photo: Getty
The Gupta scandal: how a British PR firm came unstuck in South Africa
July 20th, 2017, 06:35 PM

Bell Pottinger was accused of exploiting racial divisions to deflect attention from a business family’s troubles.

Thuli Madonsela, who helped write South Africa’s post-apartheid constitution and made her name as a fearless public protector, calls it a “reckless and dangerous dirty tricks campaign”. The journalist Max du Preez, who exposed apartheid’s death squads, describes a knife being thrust into an old wound. Jonathan Jansen, a respected voice on race relations, sees “despair and distress” cast on a fragile democracy still struggling with apartheid’s legacy.

Following reports of a campaign that allegedly exploited racial divisions to deflect attention from a business family’s troubles, South Africa – a nation admired around the globe for its ability to forgive – is not in a magnanimous mood.

One source of the public anger is familiar: the Gupta family, which has accumulated vast wealth and influence and has close relations with President Jacob Zuma. The other was until recently unknown to most South Africans: the British PR firm Bell Pottinger, which was co-founded by Margaret Thatcher’s former adviser Lord Bell (who left the company last year). On 6 July, Bell Pottinger announced that it had fired one of its partners and issued a rare apology for the work it did until April for the Guptas.

The story begins in early 2016, when the family signed a contract with Bell Pottinger, whose previous clients include the repressive governments of Egypt and Bahrain, the Pinochet Foundation and Trafigura, the commodity firm involved in a waste-dumping scandal in Côte d’Ivoire. Unverified correspondence leaked to the media suggests that President Zuma’s son, Duduzane, who is in business with the Guptas, was involved in brokering the Bell Pottinger deal, reportedly worth £100,000 a month, to help defend the family brand.

The brothers Ajay, Atul and Rajesh Gupta arrived in South Africa from India when apartheid ended in the early 1990s and started building a business empire. They operated inconspicuously until 2013, when stories about how their private wedding guests were allowed to land at an air force base revealed their deep political connections.

Since then, the scandals have multiplied, with the brothers accused of directing Zuma’s decisions for their own benefit. The family has always denied wrongdoing, but the evidence against it includes a claim by the former deputy finance minister Mcebisi Jonas that the Guptas offered him the top job in the ministry, which he declined. By last year, the family’s reputation was so stained that South Africa’s four major banks closed accounts connected to it. By the time the Guptas engaged Bell Pottinger to handle their public relations, they were under heavy media scrutiny.

A large email leak in May from inside the Gupta empire enabled the South African media to expose the nature of the family’s alleged efforts to distract attention from its businesses and dealings with the state, which, among other things, reportedly involved the targeting of journalists, rent-a-crowd protests and the “capturing” of political leaders. Twitter users, the emails suggest, were paid to troll journalists or spread propaganda; digital bots were used to amplify fake stories; Wikipedia pages were allegedly altered. The website WMC Leaks was set up and proceeded to smear some of South Africa’s top editors. (The allegations against Bell Pottinger are limited to its communications work.)

Meanwhile, journalists were also subjected to sexual slurs, or had their homes vandalised. “I have never in my life encountered a situation where I have clearly been surveilled and then accused of cheating on my wife by faceless people,” says Peter Bruce, a columnist and former editor of Business Day, a leading broadsheet.

Central to the campaign was the promotion of the idea of “white monopoly capital” – that white-owned business is the true enemy standing in the way of South Africa’s progress. The term was spread online and used in political speeches and in media outlets linked with the Guptas. Critics of the family and Zuma were accused of colluding with or being in the pocket of wealthy whites.

“Running a campaign that stokes racial tensions and the anger of the poor and others who feel the bite of poverty and inequality was bound to and did exacerbate racial polarisation,” says Madonsela.

Jonathan Jansen, the former vice-chancellor at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, says that Bell Pottinger should donate the money it earned from the Guptas to civil society organisations in South Africa. He accuses the company of having “played the colluding role of the neo-colonial paymaster with a stunning lack of self-reflection”.

After the emails were leaked, South Africans sent thousands of tweets to Bell Pottinger, forcing the firm to make its Twitter account private. In April, the company finally parted ways with the Guptas, and this month the Bell Pottinger chief executive, James Henderson, felt compelled to issue an “unequivocal and absolute” apology to anyone impacted by the “economic emancipation” campaign on social media.

“Much of what has been alleged about our work is, we believe, not true. But enough of it is to be of deep concern,” said Henderson.

Bell Pottinger has hired the law firm Herbert Smith Freehills to investigate its work with the Guptas and says that it will publish the findings. Besides firing the lead partner on the Gupta project, Bell Pottinger also suspended three other employees. The UK’s Public Relations and Communications Association is conducting a separate investigation.

In his statement, Henderson admitted that the social media campaign was “inappropriate and offensive”. “For it to be done in South Africa, a country which has become an international beacon of hope… is a matter of profound regret… These activities should never have been undertaken.”

This has not quelled the anger in South Africa, where there are growing calls for Bell Pottinger to appear before the country’s parliament and for criminal prosecutions.

Photo: Getty
The Brexit deal and all the other things Liam Fox finds “easiest in human history”
July 20th, 2017, 06:35 PM

The international trade secretary is an experienced man. 

On the day of a report warning a no deal Brexit could result in prices rises, blocked ports and legal chaos, international trade secretary Liam Fox emerged to reassure the nation. 

He told BBC Radio 4: "If you think about it, the free trade agreement that we will have to come to with the European Union should be one of the easiest in human history.” 

Since his colleague, Brexit secretary David Davis, described Brexit negotiations as more complicated than the moon landings, this suggests we are truly lucky in the calibre of our top negotiating team. 

Just for clarification, here is the full Davis-Fox definition of easy:

Super easy: Tudor divorce

All Henry VIII had to do was break away from the Catholic Church, kickstart the Reformation, fuel religious wars in Europe, and he was married to his second wife. And his third, fourth, fifth and sixth. Plus the Henry VIII clauses are really handy for bypassing parliament in 2017.

Easy: Tea Act 1773

American colonialists were buying smuggled tea, when they could have bought East India tea instead. Luckily, the British Prime Minister Lord North, found a way to deal with the problem in a single bill. Sorted.

Bit tricky: Appeasement

So what if Neville Chamberlain had never been on an airplane before? It's hardly a moon landing. And he got peace in our time. Although he was forced to resign in 1940. Not quite as easy as he thought. 

Getty
Dunkirk is an accomplished, expressive war film without the blood and guts
July 20th, 2017, 06:35 PM

Christopher Nolan both stretches time and compresses it, creating suspense without horror.

The first line heard in Christopher Nolan’s film Dunkirk is a declaration of identity. “English! Anglais!” shouts the inky-haired, milky-faced Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) as he hurries toward a group of French soldiers at the end of a deserted street, having narrowly escaped being gunned down by Germans. Identity is crucial in this movie. Questions arise about the nationality of a grunt who appears to have fallen mute: is he a German spy? And with several hundred thousand soldiers cornered in Dunkirk awaiting evacuation in May 1940, foreigners are weeded out of the lines of men waiting for rescue by British vessels.

Only one naval ship has been committed to the evacuation: with German bombers dotting the sky, picking off the troops waiting on the beach and jetty (or mole), the military won’t risk putting in jeopardy any vessels that may be needed come the next big battle. In the absence of other options, an improvised flotilla of civilian boats makes its bobbing way across the Channel towards Dunkirk.

That cry of “English! Anglais!” could also signal a returning home for the British-born, Anglo-American Nolan. For 20 years, he has been almost exclusively a Hollywood filmmaker, darkening the mood at multiplexes with his sombre Dark Knight series and his riddle-me-this puzzle pictures Inception and Interstellar, and becoming in the process one of the world’s genuine superstar directors. Dunkirk brings him back to his roots while continuing to pose the sort of structural challenges that have animated him since Memento (still his most wickedly inventive work) and The Prestige (a close second).

To maintain a triple-pronged narrative that cuts between soldiers such as Tommy on the beach, plucky civilian volunteers such as Mr Dawson (Mark Rylance) and his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) inching across the waves toward France, and the RAF Spitfire pilots Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) babysitting the lot of them from the air, Nolan’s screenplay fuses the three timelines. This gives the impression that everything is happening concurrently, when, in fact, there are minuscule flashbacks, flash-forwards and replays of the action from different angles sewn into the editing. The events on the mole occupy around a week, the ones at sea a day, while the darting aerial combat lasts merely an hour. Providing momentum and continuity is Hans Zimmer’s surging score, which is shot through with mechanical groans and shrill, sawing violins redolent of exposed nerves.

Cinema has been stretching time since at least Battleship Potemkin but it is unusual to find elongation and compression used simultaneously. The soldiers’ long wait to be rescued, as they take cover in one ship that gets torpedoed and another that is beached, is necessarily abridged. The pilots’ mission, on the other hand, is stretched out and rendered in intricate detail; at one point, Farrier’s survival comes to depend on nothing more than a piece of chalk.

It’s a sly joke for Nolan to confine an actor as imposing as Tom Hardy to a cramped cockpit as well as hiding his pretty face with a disfiguring mask for the second time. (His unintelligible turn in The Dark Knight Rises caused viewers everywhere to cup their ears in a collective “Eh?”) Casting elsewhere works on the Thin Red Line principle that minor characters are more easily defined when played by stars: Kenneth Branagh is a naval commander, Cillian Murphy a shell-shocked soldier. Advance publicity has dwelt on the acting debut of Harry Styles, formerly of One Direction, who is the latest British pop star cast by the director following Tim Booth in Batman Begins and David Bowie in The Prestige. Styles does a decent job and doesn’t bump into the furniture, though there are other elements in the film more worthy of note.

Chief among them is the decision to create suspense without horror, substantiating Nolan’s claim that this is not so much a war movie as a survival film. Audiences are put on high alert by an ambush in the opening scene and by the shot of a dead man’s foot sticking out of the sand. A soldier asked how he knows that the tide is coming in responds by pointing out that bodies are washing up on the shore. Yet Nolan is manifestly not playing a game of oneupmanship against Saving Private Ryan. Hints of violence are sparing. Soldiers killed by bombs simply disappear in an explosion of earth, and the one death in which our empathy is actively solicited falls loosely and ignominiously into the category of friendly fire.

For all its accomplished action sequences and Hoyte Van Hoytema’s expressive cinematography, which mimics at times the distressed texture of Super 8, the picture is distinguished by a knack for undercutting genre conventions without diminishing them emotionally. Pretty much the only red stuff shown is the strawberry jam handed out on slices of bread aboard a hospital ship; the one time we hear the words of Churchill they are read aloud from the morning paper by an exhausted soldier understandably lacking in bombast or ceremony. 

Theresa May thinks there's no such thing as an unsackable minister – she's wrong
July 20th, 2017, 06:35 PM

Most Tory MPs take a dim view of the public infighting, but the Prime Minister's hands are tied.

There's no such thing as an unsackable minister, Theresa May declared yesterday, as the PM laid down the law to her feuding colleagues. There's a big problem here, which is that this simply isn't true: just ask Philip Hammond, Andrea Leadsom and Liz Truss, all very much in the firing line before the election, none of whom May has the strength to sack.

It's true, as I say in my column this week, that the bulk of Conservative MPs take a dim view of the public fighting at the top of the party. It's also true that there is widespread support for a statement firing to get people in line. But the problems arise when you start to pin MPs down on who, exactly, should be sacked. What tends to happen is that MPs who backed a Leave vote name a Remainer, while Remainers tend to name a Brexiteer.

There are ministers without much pull in the parliamentary party, but they also tend to be ministers who haven't been engaging in private or public feuding.

And even if a minister could be found who was a) completely friendless and b) responsible for some of the recent difficulties, it's an awkward truth that the dismissed tend to be more likely to vote against the government or go missing on crunch votes.

No such thing as an unsackable minister? Don't believe a word of it.

Photo: Getty
What Jodie Whittaker as Doctor Who tells the rest of the world about Britain
July 20th, 2017, 06:35 PM

If any silly kids’ show can say something about the country's changing view of itself, it’s this one. 

Over the past 54 years, the hero of the TV series Doctor Who has been to the end of the universe, where the stars are going out and civilisation is all but dead. He has seen the Earth die in a ball of flame, and he has been propositioned by Kylie Minogue while standing on the deck of a starship called Titanic.

But next year, he will go somewhere he has never been before: the ladies loo. This Christmas, Peter Capaldi’s 12th Doctor will die and regenerate into Jodie Whittaker, a 35-year-old whose most high-profile role to date was as the mother of a murdered child in the ITV crime drama Broadchurch.

On Sunday 16 July, both social media and the old-fashioned kind were flooded with discussion about the Doctor’s new gender. Inevitably many non-fans were also abroad, demanding to know why anyone should care about the casting in a silly kids’ show. The obvious answer is that, after half a century, this show means a great deal to some of us. But there’s a more practical reason why the decision matters, too: Doctor Who is one of the BBC’s most valuable brands.

The original version of the show, which ran from 1963 to 1989, may have been known for its wobbly sets and aliens made of painted bubble wrap. Since Russell T Davies brought the programme back in 2005, however, it has picked up a global following. In the past few years, it has finally broken America; in 2014, the cast and crew went on a publicity tour, including stops in Australia, South Korea and Brazil. In Mexico, the show is broadcast under the frankly superior name of Doctor Mysterio. All this means that Doctor Who is an opportunity to present a view of Britishness that isn’t based on imperial history, or class politics, or cricket, or cake.

Because of the flexibility of the programme’s format, if any silly kids’ show can say something about Britain’s changing view of itself, it’s this one. And what it has just said is that it’s time men stopped dominating everything.

Regeneration – the process by which one Doctor dies and the next is born, enabling the show to recast its lead – seems so baked into the Doctor Who formula now that it’s strange to think that it wasn’t there all along. Yet, for his three years in the role, William Hartnell was never the first Doctor: he was simply the Doctor.

Hartnell played the character as irascible, patrician and grandfatherly (literally, in the case of his first companion, Susan). He was also imbued with a certain imperial self-confidence. In one early episode, he hit a Frenchman round the head with a spade.

In 1966, however, a new producer decided to recast the role. The standard narrative is that Hartnell was too ill to continue; more likely, since he was both expensive and difficult to work with, he was pushed out. The replacement, Patrick Troughton, made no attempt to impersonate Hartnell. Instead, he played the Doctor as an entirely new man, less grumpy and more funny.

Over the following decades, each new Doctor added something to the character. Jon Pertwee brought action, Tom Baker bohemian silliness, Peter Davison youth. Colin Baker brought a hint of menace and almost got the show cancelled. Sylvester McCoy brought a sense of mystery. In the half-American-funded 1996 TV movie, Paul McGann became the first Doctor – and this seemed quaintly shocking at the time – to kiss a girl.

Most of these men were either great character actors (Hartnell, Troughton, Davison) or flamboyant showmen (Pertwee, Tom Baker). While the show was off the air, though, stories speculating about its return generally attached names from the latter category, such as – and here are two men you rarely find mentioned together – Alan Davies or David Hasselhoff.

It was a statement of intent, then, when Russell T Davies cast Christopher Eccleston as his Time Lord: the show may seem silly but we’re taking it seriously. Since then, playing the Doctor catapulted both David Tennant and Matt Smith to fame and work in Hollywood. In 2013, when we met a previously unseen incarnation of the Doctor, it wasn’t a guest turn for a comedian but the last major role for the late John Hurt.

So what does the choice of Jodie Whittaker as the 13th Doctor say? For one thing, it marks her out as one of the great actors of her generation, capable of comedy and tragedy and delivering convincing technobabble, often in a single line. Perhaps it also suggests that the new lead writer, Chris Chibnall, feels under pressure to shake things up a bit.

But it also says something about how our heroes should look. The box-office and critical success of Wonder Woman has highlighted both the huge appetite for female leads and the shocking lack of them. As a result of Whittaker’s casting, for the first time in Doctor Who, a woman will play the lead, not just his (or her!) companion.

Both Capaldi and Tennant were fans of the programme before they were its star; both became actors in part because they wanted to play the Doctor. It’s a lovely idea that, somewhere out there right now, there’s a little girl who might do the same. 

Photo: Getty
Mocking Labour supporters for being middle-class misses the point
July 20th, 2017, 06:35 PM

New analysis of the party shows an increasingly affluent membership – and its opponents are foolishly delighted.

There’s nothing the right loves more than to point out when left-wing people are middle-class – as exemplified by the insult of choice to undermine opponents: “Champagne socialist”.

When Jeremy Corbyn became leader, this route of attack focused on the MP himself – like his idyllic Shropshire manor house-based childhood, and the fact that his close advisers, Seumas Milne and James Schneider, had attended the same public school.

Then the gleeful criticism moved on to Corbyn’s supporters. The childhood homes and educational backgrounds of individual Momentum figures were picked over, and when the party began attracting tens of thousands of new members, they were dismissed as middle-class.

I looked into how middle-class Labour’s new members really were at the time. It’s difficult to get this data from individual local party branches, so sweeping statements from Conservatives (and those in Labour who were perturbed by Corbyn’s leadership) were often based on flimsy information.

It is true that the majority of the party’s members are from affluent demographics, but this was the case before Corbyn – and is a historic feature of all political parties. They all tend to be disproportionately middle-class. There’s also the simple fact that Britain’s middle-class population is increasing.

But recent research into Labour’s membership – carried out by the Economic and Social Research Council’s Party Members Project – has found that this is an upward trend for the party. Of those surveyed, more than half of Labour members are graduates, and 77 per cent are in an ABC1 social group, up from 70 per cent in 2015.

Again, this will draw mockery from Labour’s detractors, trying to present the party’s supporters as hypocritical or indulging in a bourgeois hobby. Yet this is where those who mock are missing the point. This trend really represents Labour’s growing mass appeal. The fact that Labour attracts middle-class members, and appeals to middle-class voters, isn’t a weakness – it’s a strength.

Whenever I write about young people overwhelmingly voting Labour, I get the same response: when they grow up, they’ll vote Tory. But that’s not true anymore. Because growing up no longer means a stable job, an increasing salary, and the opportunity to own your own home. It no longer means that you will have enough assets or income to want the Tories to protect you from progressive taxation.

It’s much the same with the class argument. Even if your credentials (a degree, a profession, earning above a certain level, etc) make you traditionally middle-class, it’s more likely now that you will end up with a precarious contract and renting for long periods, if not for life. You can’t rely on the Tories for help anymore if you're from a certain social demographic.

As I’ve written before, Labour’s manifesto had something for everyone, including the middle-class. Its membership make-up doesn’t show a party whose support is narrowing; it shows its appeal is broadening. Something that was not happening under Ed Miliband – who was never as ridiculed for his bubble of posh advisers as Corbyn, until it was too late.

There are “champagne socialists” in Labour’s midst as there always have been. But the difference now is that Corbyn is making a virtue of them – and the label sounds increasingly desperate.

Photo: Getty
Do the Canary and co have the skill and stamina to take on the popular press?
July 20th, 2017, 06:35 PM

The hyper-partisan digital left has adopted and adapted many of the old tabloids’ tricks.

One of the most depressing themes of the digital age is how often political debate is submerged beneath bile and hate. In the second week of July, the All-Party Parliamentary Group Against Anti-Semitism found that MPs and candidates of all parties had faced horrific abuse online and offline during the election. Much of it was misogynist, racist, anti-Semitic and/or homophobic.

Perhaps inevitably, the Daily Mail decided to present the findings as proof of the “scale of left-wing bullying”. The suggestion that abuse is a uniquely left-wing problem was rather undermined during the subsequent Commons debate, in which Labour’s Diane Abbott detailed the horrifying racist and misogynistic abuse she has received in her decades as an MP. “I have had rape threats and been described as ‘a pathetic, useless fat, black piece of shit’,” she told Westminster Hall. The most surprising thing about working for her, her staff had told her, was the daily stream of racist insults on Twitter, Facebook and email.

Hey, haters

I have only experienced significant online abuse once in my career, after reporting on a petition calling for the BBC’s political editor, Laura Kuenssberg, to be sacked over her alleged anti-Labour bias. A barrage of tweets and emails followed, some cordial, some less so. One anonymous Twitter user called me “a smug c***” and, for some reason, provided a detailed account of a gap year I was meant to have gone on.

Why, out of the many hundreds of articles I’d written, did this one attract so much ire? Going by some of the more coherent messages, I think it was mainly down to the suggestion that there might have been an element of misogyny driving the petition. There is a certain irony in how, as a straight white man, it took an article mentioning misogyny to provoke online abuse against me.

It is almost impossible to judge whether left- or right-wingers generate the most vicious abuse online, but it has been proven repeatedly that anyone who is not a straight white man will face more of it.

This makes it arguably a bigger problem for the left than for the right. Labour has built an electoral coalition around presenting itself as diverse, liberal and educated (and if we take Jeremy Corbyn’s appeal for a “kinder, gentler politics” at face value, more civilised). It’s a brand that is especially vulnerable to being undermined by vile people who claim to represent it.

Canary in the mine

One of the reasons why my piece about Kuenssberg attracted so much attention was that pioneer of hyper-partisan left-wing online news, the Canary. It pushed the petition heavily, and when the host site took it down because of the misogyny it was attracting, the Canary editor, Kerry-Anne Mendoza, claimed that it was part of an establishment conspiracy to stamp out dissent.

If that’s the case, the establishment isn’t doing a very good job. The Canary has run at least 17 articles specifically criticising Kuenss­berg since then. This relentless focus on a single individual – who is held to be emblematic of a greater problem – is strikingly reminiscent of the sustained attacks that the tabloids deploy against their enemies. The perceived influence of the new generation of far-left media stars can be measured by the way that the right-wing tabloids now regularly attack them in return.

Earlier this month, the man behind the pro-Corbyn Skwawkbox blog, who has tried to keep his full name private, was the subject of an “exposé” alleging that he ran an IT company selling software to privatised sections of the NHS. The Sun, which followed up the Daily Mail’s initial report, has since issued a clarification stating that the “software is provided for free, and the NHS organisations that use it are not privatised”. At the time of writing, the Mail article was still online without a clarification.

The hyper-partisan digital left has adopted and adapted many of the old tabloids’ tricks to turn itself into a major player in Labour politics. But when it comes to fighting really dirty, will it have either the skill or the stamina?

Sky’s the limit

Rupert Murdoch’s bid for full ownership of Sky seems likely to be referred to the Competitions and Markets Authority. He could have tried to avoid this by offering assurances to the Culture Secretary, Karen Bradley, over the independence of Sky News, but appears to have chosen to dodge a political skirmish and risk it being referred straight to the regulator.

David Bond of the Financial Times reports that Murdoch thinks the Tories are too weak to risk battles that might delay the deal. The tycoon is keen to get things wrapped up as quickly as possible, driven by his promise to Sky shareholders of an extra 10p per share if the takeover is not finished by the end of the year.

A few months ago, opponents of the deal were grimly resigned to its inevitability. Now, the absence of a Conservative majority and Ofcom’s surprisingly robust findings on potential media plurality have given them hope. Murdoch already owns extensive media interests in the UK, and full control of Sky will concentrate his power.

The critics are still cautious rather than optimistic, but the deal is looking much less certain than it was before the election.

Glass ceiling

ITV has hired the EasyJet boss, Carolyn McCall, as its new CEO – which means two of Britain’s broadcasters will be run by women. Like the incoming Channel 4 boss, Alex Mahon, McCall, a former Guardian Media Group chief executive, is respected and liked in the industry. One former colleague described her as “no-nonsense but kind”. The BBC is making its own efforts to get more women into senior roles, but as signals of diversity go, it’s difficult to compete with putting a woman at the top.

Jasper Jackson is the NS digital editor

Photo: Getty
Commons Confidential: Theresa May's Swiss retreat
July 20th, 2017, 06:35 PM

Your weekly dose of gossip from around Westminster.

A self-declared feminist of sorts and the UK’s second female Prime Minister, Theresa May toils in a Downing Street with more than a hint of a gentlemen’s club. The lavatory outside her ground-floor office is a gents. Women visitors are directed down a corridor to the disabled toilet. Margaret Thatcher preferred to work upstairs, near a ladies. Is the Prime Minister really required to pop into a disabled loo when nature calls?

One leader’s bad news is another’s glad tidings, so Jeremy Corbyn smiled on election night while May shed her little tear. What the rivals had in common at 10pm on 8 June was the expectation that the Tories would strengthen their grip on the Commons. Jittery Jezza, I’m told, confided to aides shortly before the polls closed that he anticipated a Tory majority of 37 seats.

Before packing her boots for Switzerland this summer, May urged others not to follow in her Welsh footsteps. Hearing a guest at a drinks party say that he intended to go trekking in Snowdonia, where she hatched her election plot, May advised drily, “Try not to make any plans while you’re there.” The PM flying to the land of Heidi smacks of an escape when cabinet wannabes are in hot pursuit.

The Billy Bunterish Tory hereditary peer Thomas Galloway Dunlop du Roy de Blicquy Galbraith – the 2nd Baron “Tom” Strathclyde – possesses a name and title so grand that they are almost too long for a tweet. Strathclyde is a senior adviser to a developer working on the £9bn Battersea Power Station project that is pleading poverty to cut the number of affordable homes it plans to build by 40 per cent. Equally contentious is a “since leaving politics” section in his corporate bio. The peer is a regular speaker in the Lords, voting 14 times by my snout’s count against strengthening affordable housing in law. That’s what I call a coincidence.

She was a “senior Downing Street source” in the Telegraph and a “senior government source” on Sky and in the Mail. The BBC “understood” that it should dodge attribution. I can reveal that the source of the stories that Donald Trump’s state visit to Britain has been postponed until next year was the loose-lipped May. Stern zip-it lectures to cabinet colleagues fall on deaf ears when the Prime Minister inadvertently makes news.

The Walsall South Labour MP Valerie Vaz was overheard saying to Chris Williamson: “Oh, please, Chris, don’t deselect me.” The Derby North MP’s championing of mandatory deselection has got them worried.

The unmistakable whiff of cannabis was scented on the Commons terrace before the summer recess. Who was the MP for Marijuana Central? 

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Photo: Getty
9 things that will happen on No Deal Brexit Day
July 20th, 2017, 06:35 PM

You can fly to Dublin, Dublin, or Dublin. 

No deal, according to Theresa May at one point in the far distant past, was better than a bad deal on Brexit. Now a report from the influential academic group UK in a Changing Europe has examined what no deal might actually look like. 

The writers of the report denied they wished to suggest leaving the EU with no deal would be catastrophic, but instead “set about the task with an open mind”. Here is what they found a no deal Brexit would mean:

1. It will go against public wisdom

Just after the election, Survation reported that as many as two-thirds of Brits believed that leaving the EU without “a mutually agreed deal” would be bad for Britain, while just 26 per cent reckoned it would be good for the country. Other polls show similar scepticism about leaving with no deal.

2. There will be legal chaos

Article 50 states the treaties will cease to apply at the end of the two year negotiating period. According to the report: “This will lead to legal chaos.” 

For example, while treaties are still in place, UK exporters pay no tariffs when transporting goods to Europe. After B-Day, there will be a duty to be paid. But who pays it? And if the buyer and seller enter a dispute, what court resolves it? 

3. Trading with the EU would default to WTO rules

World Trade Organisation rules would apply. British exporters to the EU would be subject to the same customs checks, tariffs and regulatory barriers that are currently in place with the US. In practical terms, this means lorry queues at border points like Dover and Calais. 

4. A border would reappear on the island of Ireland

Because of these customs checks and tariffs, the report expects a return to a hard border in Northern Ireland in the absence of a Brexit deal. This would disrupt farming in particular. 

5. Food prices will rise

While a plummeting pound may affect prices in the short term (as it’s already doing), the report expects food to get pricier in the longer term because of the extra tariffs. Where the UK relies on buying from abroad, like fruits and vegetables, pork and beef, “prices may rise significantly”. 

6. It’s fishing galore

If no deal is reached, boats from other EU member state will lose their automatic legal right to go fish in UK waters. So British fishermen could catch more fish. But here’s the catch. When it came to selling that fish, they would face tariffs on sales to their largest export market – the EU.

7. The only destination is Dublin

The report expects that if no deal was struck, the right to operate services from one airport to another would vanish and the only reliable airline routes would be from the UK to the airline’s home country. In other words, you could fly Ryanair to Dublin, but not to Barcelona, Milan or Paris. 

8. We’re going un-nuclear

Without being a member of Euratom, the body that oversees nuclear energy, the UK will lose access to safety procedures and systems for operating nuclear power plants. The plants would have to shut, and the UK would have to find new sources of energy soon, or it’s lights out. 

9. EU’re in limbo

Without any agreement, EU citizens in the UK would be in a form of legal and political limbo – not illegal, but with their status at best anomalous. Those without documentation would struggle the most. Meanwhile, UK nationals elsewhere in the EU would find themselves at the mercy of individual nation states.

Getty
Is it racist to have a preference in whom you date?
July 19th, 2017, 06:35 PM

We’d be better off quitting dating apps and getting back into the real world.

“Is it racist to have a preference when it comes to the race of the people you date?” a friend asked me last week. He looked at me with a wry smile on his face. Both of us are products of mixed relationships and move in ethnically diverse circles, but I knew where the conversation was going.

“It depends,” I said. “On what that preference is, and why.”

He’s mixed white and Caribbean, and said to me that he was interested in “light-skinned” girls, Latinas and white girls. Just not black girls. When I asked him what made him feel that way he shrugged and said “I just do.”

His response sounded pretty problematic to me. He didn’t have any real reasons for his preferences and I had more than a strong suspicion that they were informed by stereotypes about all of the groups he mentioned rather than by any real personal experience with them.

I should stress that this conversation isn’t new. Being a young person of colour in one of the most diverse cities in the world where dating culture feels increasingly more Americanised, I hear heated debates about racial preferences all the time. Regardless of if you’re actually on dating apps or not, social media presents you with a world of choice where you can cherry pick your networks and get more of what you want. Now more than ever we feel like we know what we like, and can get it at the click of a button. But what if this is this a bad thing - and is ultimately revealing racist tendencies?

Emma Dabiri’s Is Love Racist, which aired on Channel 4 this week, suggests that it is. Using statistics collated from a survey about dating habits, as well as conducting social experiments on a group of young singletons, the show confirmed that the odds were stacked in favor of white people in the dating game. More than a third of white people said they would never date a black person, compared to just 10 per cent of black people who wouldn’t date a white person.

The questions raised by the preference across the board for whiteness are clearly far too complicated to be fully unpacked in under an hour. Debate on social media came from all directions. On Twitter, for example, I watched several people dismissing the results by making the case that living in the UK, where the vast majority of the population are white, it’s not unusual that white dominates on dating apps. After all, to cut out potential white partners would be to cut out almost 80 per cent of the people out there.

Read more: Is India in denial about its attitude to skin colour?

However, it would be naive to think that it’s really as simple as that. Clearly, we do recognise that there are issues with racism and equality away from dating apps, and that they do cross over from one to the other. Ruby McGregor Smith, at one time the only female Asian chief executive of a FTSE250 company, underlined this in the programme when she said “If you’ve got preferences, I don’t think they would be different in your personal life than your work life.”

The aversion to dating some minority groups that seems to be the issue here though. Why is it that the name “Mohammed” got the most negative response from a list of potential date names? Again, time didn’t allow for this to be properly explored.

When participants did express attraction for other ethnicities, they tended to be informed by crude stereotypes. One guy said he liked “Asian girls because they’re more submissive”. Another said that he had slept with mixed race girls, but wasn’t “into mixed race girls”.

Whilst fully recognising all of these issues raised about interracial dating in the programme, I didn’t settle on the same conclusion that Dabiri seemed to, namely that having preferences is necessarily a problem. Preferences aren’t supposed to be completely exclusive. They merely show partiality. Alarm bells should only ring when preferences become inflexible or are informed by general ideas as opposed to genuine experience.

It’s not only unfair, but also unrealistic to say that we shouldn’t have preferences about who we date. Generally speaking people are inclined to date people who they feel culturally and morally compatible with. While that doesn’t strictly mean that they should come from a particular race, life experiences leave us with entirely personal impressions that affect how you feel about potential partners in the future.

The real problem is that dating apps are inherently flawed. They skew attraction on a superficial level, of which race is undoubtedly the most sensitive category. We’d be better off quitting these apps and going back into the real world, where we can decide first hand what we like.

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Affected by the pension age rise? Get used to living in the Brexitocracy
July 19th, 2017, 06:35 PM

Curbing immigration will make the dependency ratio even worse.

Born in the 1970s? You probably voted to remain in the EU, had your childhood memories tarnished by Operation Yewtree, saw your wages stagnate in the last decade, voted for a left-wing party in the 2017 election – and you're going to be working until you're 68.

David Gauke, the Work and Pensions Secretary, announced today that the state pension age would be raised seven years earlier than planned. In 2037, it will rise from 67 to 68. Those affected by the change were born between 5 April 1970 and the same date in 1978.

The decision is in response to projections from the Office for National Statistics, which show the number of people over the state pension age is expected to grow by a third between 2017 and 2042. 

One reason for this is longevity. In 1948, when the state pension was introduced, a 65-year-old typically spent about 13-and-a-half years claiming it before they died. In 2017, the same 65-year-old will live 22.8 years.

But another reason is the dependency ratio – in other words, the proportion of young workers available to support each pensioner. This was projected to reduce anyway, because of longevity, but Brexit is likely to make it worse.

As Sarah Harper, chair of the UK government's foresight review on ageing societies, put it to the Guardian in early 2017: “If you don’t want immigrants, you’re going to have to work longer. That's how the sums work.” Not only do EU migrants tend to be young workers, who pay taxes, but they make up significant numbers of all-important low-paid care workers, representing 7 per cent of the social care workforce. 

There is a chance that the state pension rise could be blocked by parliament. Labour is opposed, and the Democratic Unionist Party has already forced the government to climb down from some cuts that affect pensioners. But all the afore-mentioned parties support Brexit, with its implications of ending free movement and reducing immigration. 

Of course, the irony is that younger British voters chose Remain, and older voters chose Leave. But Britain is not a geriatocracy, because, as the speeding up the of the state pension age rise shows, the trappings for the pensioners today will not be available for generations to come. 

Those most untouched by the consequences of Brexit are today's Leave-voting, home-owning, inflation-protected pensioners. You could call it the Brexitocracy. 

Photo: Getty
Tory feuds reveal a leadership contest is already under way
July 19th, 2017, 06:35 PM

The jostling for advantage in the party will continue long into the summer and beyond.

If you are in the market for narratives of Conservative revival, there is a semi-plausible one on offer from most of that party’s MPs. It goes something like this: the government emerges from the Brexit negotiations with a deal that delivers a gentle transition, the economy avoids a serious recession and the parliament runs until its expiry date of June 2022. By then, Jeremy Corbyn will have been in place for almost seven years and will have lost some of his radical chic, in contrast to the new Tory leader – “Candidate X” – who will win a small but workable parliamentary majority.

The difficulty is that no one can agree on who Candidate X might be. In contemplative moments, Conservative MPs reflect on their situation two years ago after David Cameron announced that he would not contest a third general election and the party’s thoughts inevitably turned to the succession. Back then, Tories believed they had an embarrassment of riches: not only George Osborne, Cameron’s preferred heir, but Boris Johnson and Theresa May, the up-and-coming cabinet ministers Sajid Javid, Stephen Crabb and Amber Rudd, and promising backbenchers such as Dominic Raab.

Now the field of alternatives to May is looking sparse. Osborne is out of parliament. Javid has not distinguished himself as Communities Secretary and was expected to lose his post in the event of a May landslide. Johnson’s appeal at Westminster was always based on his presumed support in the country, and as that has waned, so have his leadership prospects. Crabb, once the great hope of the modernisers, is on the back benches and his majority was slashed at the last election. Rudd’s stock rose during the election campaign but it ended with her securing only a wafer-thin majority in her Sussex seat of Hastings and Rye.

Raab’s fate illustrates the wider problem. He has long been tipped as the coming man of the Conservative right, but because of Cameron’s reluctance to reshuffle, Raab has yet to prove himself in a senior ministerial brief. (He was made minister of state for courts and justice in June, after being elected in 2010.)

The options for replacements are therefore uninspiring, and this explains why most Conservative MPs do not want a leadership election just yet. Allies of David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, talk up his potential as an interim prime minister – able to bring through younger talents and settle the Brexit question – but the appetite in the wider parliamentary party for going through three prime ministers in a single term is small. Backbenchers, particularly in marginal seats, know that one of the few strengths of the Tory brand is the party’s reputation for level-headedness. In a 2022 election, that would be hard to maintain after four prime ministers in 12 years. “We would look like bloody Italy,” is how one minister puts it.

Regardless of what the average Conservative MP might want, however, the first stage of the contest is already under way. It began at 10pm on the evening of 8 June, when the BBC’s exit poll showed that the government was on course to lose its parliamentary majority. Success in a big ministerial portfolio is important for an ambitious politician, but now there is another temptation – to advertise the failures of your rivals.

This partly explains a series of damaging leaks about Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, first to the Sun on 15 July and then to the Sunday Times the day after. In the Sun, the Chancellor was said to have remarked that driving a train was now so easy that “even a woman” could do it, a comment he straightforwardly denied when it was raised by Andrew Marr on his BBC show.

Hammond was more equivocal, however, when confronted with the Sunday Times story that he had also called people working in the public sector “overpaid”.

The Chancellor is in three sets of cross hairs. The first is for being a Tory leadership contender, albeit a weak one. (He has the support of few MPs.) The second is for his relative softness on Brexit. The third is for his commitment to the current programme of cuts. Any of those frustrations alone might have stayed as tea room whispers. The combination of all three makes him a marked man.

Although Hammond qualified his remark on public-sector pay, the political damage has been done. The problem for his Conservative opponents is that the wounds from this dust-up are not only borne by the Chancellor. Hammond is far from a household name, so most voters think less not of a single pretender to the Conservative throne but of the entire party. For the sake of their electoral prospects, his rivals should be very careful about putting the word “uncaring” and “Tory minister” in the same sentence.

This danger is well appreciated by Conservative backbenchers, which is why a week of toxic headlines for the government as a whole has increased, rather than diminished, Theresa May’s chances of hanging on. The influential 1922 Committee of backbenchers has given the Prime Minister licence to assert what is left of her authority by sacking anyone who briefs too obviously against fellow ministers or betrays cabinet secrets.

The resentment is particularly acute among some backbenchers because the politicians at the centre of the row – including, it is widely suggested, the newly rehabilitated Michael Gove, the Environment Secretary – all sit for seats that were solidly Conservative, even in the rout of 1997. MPs for marginals resent squabbling among entrenched grandees while they face being picked off in any Labour advance.

There are, however, few ways for backbenchers to avenge themselves on one plotter without rewarding another. As a result, the jostling for advantage will continue long into the summer and beyond.

Photo: Getty
Is Jeremy Corbyn right that trans people should be allowed to self-identify their gender?
July 19th, 2017, 06:35 PM

The Labour leader has told Theresa May he will back the Tories if the government wants to reform legislation about changing your legal gender.

Jeremy Corbyn has reiterated his pledge in the Labour manifesto to allow people to self-identify their gender. He told a Commons reception: "Discrimination has gone on too long. The Gender Recognition Act does not allow trans people to self-identify their gender and forces them to undergo invasive medical tests. This is wrong."

Theresa May has already said that she wants "changes to be made" to the current system, but the feeling in Westminster is that the socially conservative DUP is unlikely to back her. Hence Corbyn's offer.

Now, the language Corbyn has used here doesn't fill me with confidence that he understands the current system for gender recognition. Currently, a gender recognition certificate is issued by a special panel to an individual after two years living in their acquired gender. There is no requirement for what used to be called "sex change surgery", although panels do ask for medical records showing a diagnosis of gender dysphoria. Applicants are also asked to show other IDs in their new name. But Corbyn's phrase "invasive medical tests" seems to invoke the idea of punitive and humiliating procedures like the attempts in some US states to give mandatory vaginal ultrasounds for anyone wanting an abortion. In the UK, if anyone is looking at your genitals, it's for medical rather than legal reasons.

The new self-ID system was proposed by the Commons Women and Equalities committee, chaired by the former Conservative cabinet minister Maria Miller. It's a bit dismaying that this is the only bit of the committee's recommendations which has achieved any traction, because the report had some fairly stern words about the misery caused to trans people through their difficulty in accessing specialist NHS services. But, as I wrote at the time, fixing the lack of NHS funding is a lot more expensive than changing the GRC system. (Incidentally, Miller said at the time of the report being released that the only opposition came from women "purporting to be feminists"; I am in no way surprised by this. I doubt if I stopped the average person in Britain - or even the average male MP in Westminster - they would have no strong opinions on the potential drawbacks of the self-ID system. Feminists are literally the only group dedicated to interrogating whether proposed policies are bad for women. It's not that everyone else necessarily thinks her proposal was a good idea; it's more that they haven't thought about it at all.)

There are undoubtedly drawbacks to the current system. There is a fee, although a means-tested refund is available. It is drawn-out and bureaucratic. As one trans woman I talked to earlier today pointed out, trying to navigate government bureaucracy at a difficult and disruptive time of your life is no one's idea of fun. That perhaps explains why some of the trans women who have come to public attention for being housed in male prisons didn't have a certificate. As with any tangle with government agencies, the GRC process is a lot easier to navigate for sharp-elbowed, well-educated, well-spoken people with English as their first language.

But there are two critiques of self-ID. The first is from the transgender perspective: that it will, put bluntly, augment the ranks of "transsexuals" (not the best word, but you will see why I've used it in a minute) with the much wider category of transgender people. The cutting edge activist understanding of gender is one that even some older trans people find fairly radical: that you can be trans without any dysphoria (hatred of/alienation from your sexed body) and that gender is purely about an inner essence. On Tumblr, those who follow the older strand of thinking - that being trans involves living as the other sex - are sometimes referred to as "truscum" or HBJers, after the sexologist Harry Benjamin, who developed protocols for the treatment of trans people.  

This divide doesn't get talked about much, for the simple reason that one of the repeated criticisms thrown at trans people is that they are "pretending" or "putting it on". So those with a dysphoria diagnosis are wary of implying that those without one are "not really trans". But my sense is that to the general population, there is a difference between somebody who has physically transitioned and someone who, say, identifies as non-binary genderqueer but hasn't pursued a transition of any sort. There are even some trans women who worry acutely that cross-dressers, particularly those who do so for fetish reasons, reduce support for their right to live as women by seeming to parody ideas of femininity while appearing very male. Other activists are concerned that the currently very low rates of detransition could climb if there is no gatekeeping - again, potentially giving fuel to those who see this as a trend or fad.

The other critique of self-ID is the feminist one. It runs broadly like this: sex-segregation is now limited in public life, and it is done primarily for reasons of safety or fair competition. (Think: domestic violence shelters, and competitive sports.) The Equalities Act 2010 has "gender reassignment" as a protected characteristic, so that discrimination against anyone on those grounds is illegal. There are very limited exceptions, which a move to "gender identity" as the characteristic could remove.

For some reason, this debate often ends up talking about toilets. That's probably because online activism in English is dominated by the US, and in America, a series of punitive “bathroom bills” is being pushed by conservative evangelicals, ostensibly to protect women, but really to make life harder for transgender people. (The bills would require people to use the toilet which corresponds to their birth sex.) There is no legislative parallel in Britain because of the gender recognition certificate - once you get that, you get a birth certificate which shows an "M" or "F" just the same as if that had been your sex from birth. Also, we are British and probably wouldn't stand for our police hustling into loos and demanding to see someone's driver's licence.

For feminists, it's the whole idea of legislating on "identity" rather than material conditions which is potentially controversial. 

For some characteristics, we already use pure self-declaration (like race) on the understanding that public services do not rely on racial segregation. However, there are still some areas of life which do operate sex-segregation, from rape shelters to professional sports to women’s swimming lessons to hospital wards. Sometimes, the segregation is for safety; at other times, it encourages marginalised religious communities to use facilities which women might otherwise be forbidden from visiting (like gyms or swimming pools). In sport, it is done because every credible scientist acknowledges that testosterone and male puberty confer huge advantages in many sports.

Much has been made of the plight of trans women in prisons. In the UK the department of justice has tried to steer a course which protects both the principle of sex-segregation and trans women’s sense of self. (There is generally acknowledged to be no problem with trans men who want to move to the men's estate.) The presumption is that trans prisoners should live in the estate of their professed gender, if they are living in that gender, unless a case review board decides otherwise. Edward/Joanne Latham, who was found hanged, is often rolled into an aggregate number of trans prisoners who died by suicide, but the inquest heard that Latham “went through phases”. Staff addressed her as Joanne, but she had legally changed her name to Edward earlier that year. (Latham was also highly unstable and violent, unlike the vast majority of inmates in the female estate). A counterpoint is the case of Paris Green, who murdered a man alongside two friends, after sexually assaulting him with a rolling pin. She had to be twice moved from the women’s estate after having sex with female inmates

It should be noted here that the prison service says that the vast majority of trans prisoners are accommodated in the estate they feel best suits their gender identity. Our prisons are brutal, understaffed and underfunded, with terrible provision for those with mental health difficulties or addictions, and a horrifying number of people kill themselves every year. Trans women are obvious targets for bullying and sexual assault. But that does not negate the fact that sex-segregation of prison is necessary for women’s safety. A move to pure self-declaration is obviously open to abuse.

I use prisons as an example of competing rights as it is perhaps the most difficult example because of the demographics involved. But similar concerns apply to women’s refuges. Again, the sector must balance trying to support trans women (who have access to little or no specialist services) with their other service users. And the Olympic committee and others have wrestled for years with the fairest way to draw a boundary around competitive sports, given the potential benefits of high testosterone to athletic performance. Recently, women with naturally high testerosterone were barred from competitions unless they took medication to lower it, although that has now been overturned. But clearly, the blurry boundaries of biological sex (never mind cultural gender) are going to present the same questions to sporting authorities as other physical advantages, such as those who have a naturally higher number of red blood cells. Feminists are worried that the move to self-ID will demolish the rationale for, and the operation of, single-sex sports. 

As I've just demonstrated at exhausting length, this proposed change is a quietly radical one. It has potentially big repercussions for everything from the justice system to the actuarial life-expectancy tables used to calculate pension pots. It might suit politicians like Maria Miller and Jeremy Corbyn to present it as something very straightforward, but it isn't. If those politicians really respect their voters, they will come clean about the competing rights involved. 

Jeremy Corbyn. Photo: Getty
The second coming of Gordon Ramsay
July 19th, 2017, 06:35 PM

A star is reborn. 

It would be a lie to say that Gordon Ramsay ever disappeared. The celebrity chef made his television debut in 1997 and went on to star in shows in 1998, 2001, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017. There hasn’t been a lull in Ramsay’s career, which has arguably gone from strength to strength. In 2000, he was cooking for Vladimir Putin and Tony Blair – in 2008, he ate the raw heart of a dead puffin.

Left: Gordon Ramsay shaking hands with Vladimir Putin. Right: Gordon Ramsay hugging a puffin (different from the one he ate).

Yet we are, undeniably, in the middle of a Ramsay renaissance. How? How could a man that conquered the last twenty years of cookery-based television have an upsurge in popularity? There are only so many television channels – so many amateur donkey chefs. Wrong. The internet has enabled a Ramsay resurgence, the second act of a play overflowing with blood, sweat, and French onion soup.

Wow.

We all, of course, know about Gordon’s Twitter account. Although started in 2010, the social media profile hit the headlines in February this year when Ramsay began rating food cooked by the world’s amateur-amateur chefs. But other elements of Ramsay’s internet celebrity are more miraculous and mysterious.

His official YouTube channel uploads, on average, three videos a week. Decades old clips from Kitchen Nightmares accumulate over three million views in as many days. A 15,000 follower-strong Facebook fan page for the show – which premiered in 2007 and ended in 2014 – was set up on 19 June 2017.

Wow, wow, wow, wow. Wow.       

A Google Trends graph showing an April 2017 surge in Ramsay's popularity, after a decline in 2014.                                      

What makes a meme dank? Academics don’t know. What is apparent is that a meme parodying Gordon Ramsay’s fury over missing lamb sauce (first aired on Hell’s Kitchen in 2006) had a dramatic upsurge in popularity in December 2016. This is far from Gordon’s only meme. Image macros featuring the star are captioned with fictitious tirades from the chef, for example: “This fish is so raw… it’s still trying to find Nemo”. A parody clip from The Late Late Show with James Cordon in which Ramsay calls a woman an “idiot sandwich” has been watched nearly five million times on YouTube.

And it is on YouTube where Ramsay memes most thrive. The commenters happily parrot the chef’s most memable moments, from “IT’S RAW” to the more forlorn “fuck me” after the news something is frozen. “HELLO MY NAME IS NINOOOOO!” is an astonishingly popular comment, copied from a clip in which a Kitchen Nightmares participant mocks his brother. If you have not seen it – you should.

But what does all this mean for Ramsay’s career? His YouTube channel and Facebook page are clearly meticulously managed by his team – who respond to popular memes by clipping and cutting new videos of classic Ramsay shows. Although this undoubtedly earns a fortune in ad revenue, Ramsay’s brand has capitalised on his internet fame in more concrete ways. The chef recently voiced Gordon Ramsay Dash, a mobile game by Glu Games Inc in which you can cook with the star and he will berate or praise you for your efforts. Ten bars of gold – which are required to get upgrades and advance in the game – cost 99p.

Can other celebrity chefs learn from Ramsay? A generation will never forgive that twisted, golden piece of meat, Jamie Oliver, for robbing them of their lunch time Turkey Twizzlers. But beyond this, the internet’s love is impossible to game. Any celebrity who tried to generate an online following similar to Ramsay’s would instantly fail. Ramsay’s second coming is so prolific and powerful because it is completely organic. In many ways, the chef is not resposible for it. 

In truth, the Ramsay renaissance only worked because it was - though the chef himself would not want to admit it - completely raw.

Getty/Glu Games/New Statesman
PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn sends the Tories off for a difficult summer
July 19th, 2017, 06:35 PM

As Theresa May fails yet again to deflect Labour’s attacks on inequality, there will be a lot of soul-searching over recess.

Theresa May says she doesn’t regret calling the snap election that lost her majority. But there are two regrets she probably does have. The first would be her speech about helping the “just about managing” on the steps of No 10 when she took office. The second would be forgetting about austerity as a Tory priority.

Both of these decisions have come back to bite her – and can be used ruthlessly by Labour. Nowhere was this clearer than the last PMQs before Parliament breaks up for recess.

For what seemed like the tenth week in a row, Jeremy Corbyn was able to hit the Prime Minister where it hurts on the public sector pay freeze, arguing that people are being squeezed by low wages and rising inflation. He said she needs a “check on reality”, and brought up the Chancellor Philip Hammond’s alleged comment about public sector workers being “overpaid” – an unconfirmed quote, and the result of a leak from cabinet members arguing to lift the cap.

Corbyn’s attack on this worked two ways: exposing the cabinet’s divides on the subject, and also – more importantly – cementing the public’s preconceptions about the Conservative Party.

The Tories are always trying to shed their image as the party of the rich, out-of-touch with “ordinary” people. But being called out on in-work poverty and low-pay only perpetuates this image – and May’s promise to help struggling working-class families makes it even worse. It’s no longer just a Tory stereotype; it’s a betrayal.

This pay freeze is symbolic of the debate about austerity that resurfaced after Corbyn’s election performance. His success was taken by many Tories as a vote against austerity. That’s why there are both cabinet members and backbenchers who think it’s time for a different approach. Corbyn has emboldened them, but May has done more to do so. By dropping George Osborne’s deficit targets, and borrowing to invest in infrastructure, she allowed austerity to drop off the agenda. This is making it all the more difficult for her and her Chancellor to now defend.

So the Conservatives won’t only be thinking about their next leader over the summer. They’ll be searching for the soul of their party too.

BBC screengrab
The extra money for schools is too little, far too late – they are already on their knees
July 19th, 2017, 06:35 PM

Many headteachers have already made redundancies, and most are worried about the future.

The £1.3bn in extra revenue funding for schools announced by Education Secretary Justine Greening this week should be welcomed, but heads are justifiably bittersweet about a move that raises more questions than it answers.

The end of term has always been a time of mixed emotions for schools. but in recent years, celebrations have been soured by the departure of staff made redundant by desperate headteachers faced with huge real-terms cuts to their budgets.

The extra cash, which follows a huge backlash from voters over cuts during the election campaign and pressure from Tories embarrassed on the doorstep, is long overdue. But for many schools, the damage of years of rising cost pressures and stagnant funding has already been done.

At Uplands Community College in East Sussex, headteacher Liam Collins has had to make three members of staff redundant this year, at a cost of more than £70,000 to the school.What would have happened if the government’s pledge to guarantee every secondary school £4,800 per pupil had come earlier? Would he have faced the same tough decision? “I would not have had to make anyone redundant,” says Collins. 

Under the government’s new funding plans, Uplands will have an additional £500,000 in its budget, equivalent to £1,200 per Key Stage 3 pupil. But this won’t happen until at least 2018, and Uplands, like many other schools across England, is already on its knees.

Paul Whiteman, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, fears the funding comes too late to reverse cuts to staffing or curriculum that school leaders “will have already taken for 2017-18”.

He also says the amount of additional cash handed over to schools is “too little”.

“Yesterday’s announcement of £1.3bn only amounts to £400m next year and £800m the year after that,” he says. “The money will not begin to reach schools until April 2018 at the earliest and while we welcome any additional funding for schools, it’s well below the £2bn a year extra that schools need to address real-terms cuts.”

According to the IFS, even with the additional cash from Greening et al, schools will still have seen their budgets cut by 4.6 per cent in real terms between 2015-16 and 2019-20. The latest cash injection does nothing to right the wrongs done to schools over the last few years, and gives leaders no indication of what to expect beyond 2020.

As Vic Goddard, principal of Passmores Academy and star of the hit TV show Educating Essex, tweeted yesterday

So, as Tory MPs dutifully retweet a bright blue banner proclaiming that the party is “giving young people the best start in life” with its £1.3bn handout, heads face massive uncertainty as they prepare to say goodbye to pupils ahead of the summer holiday.

The announcement was surreptitiously squeezed, last-minute, into the parliamentary calendar on Monday, and a cynic might wonder if officials wanted the element of surprise, to catch off-guard the heads, teachers, parents and school funding campaigners who became so troublesome on the doorstep during the election.

However, even if the decision to make the announcement a few days before the end of term was made in good faith, the timing is still dreadful.

Imagine agonising over a decision to make valued members of staff redundant, only to find out that there’s a possibility that if you’d held out a little longer, done things a bit differently, they might have been able to stay. Imagine having to say goodbye to teachers, support workers, administrative staff, with a nagging thought in the back of your mind that it didn’t need to be this way.

Budgets for 2017-18 were set a long time ago now, but I don’t know a single head who wouldn’t do everything in their power to avoid redundancies, and an early warning that more money was on its way could have made for a very different set of circumstances this year.

Under the proposed funding changes announced yesterday, schools will be guaranteed increases in their budgets of 0.5 per cent in cash terms in 2018-19 and 2019-20, while some will gain more in an effort to address historic regional variations in spending.

Greening said yesterday that the £1.3 billion of extra money, coupled with planned rises set out in the last comprehensive spending review in 2015, mean that the overall schools budget will rise by £2.6bn by 2019-20.

However, there is still uncertainty about how schools will be funded beyond 2020, when the government is due to carry out another review.

As Education Policy Institute head of research Natalie Perera writes in Schools Week, the lack of commitment beyond the next two years is a “hindrance to long-term resource and staff planning. Without the ability to plan ahead, schools may struggle to make the improvements in efficiency that ministers are often so keen to promote."

That’s the problem with this piecemeal peace offering to schools. Not only is it too little, far too late, but it tells schools nothing about their future, creating further uncertainty at a time when heads have their backs to the wall.

Photo: Getty
The New Statesman Cover | The new world disorder
July 19th, 2017, 06:35 PM

A first look at this week's magazine.

21 - 27 July 2017 issue
The new world disorder

Leader: The Brexit wars
July 19th, 2017, 06:35 PM

Where is the wisdom and leadership required to guide Britain through this self-inflicted crisis?

The House of Commons rose this week for the summer recess. For Theresa May the break could not have come soon enough. The Prime Minister’s authority was shattered by the general election, which she called blithely expecting to crush Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. Her campaign was deplorable. It was robotic, disrespectful to the electorate and devoid of hope. Her rhetorical positioning in her early weeks in Downing Street had been commendable. The reality of her election offer was demoralising and her punishment was to lose the Conservatives’ hard-won majority.

By contrast, Mr Corbyn campaigned with enthusiasm and conviction. His brand of left-wing populism raises as many questions as it offers solutions but it has revitalised the Labour Party and mobilised a generation of young people. The Electoral Commission has said that 1.9 million people aged under 34 registered to vote after Mrs May called the general election on 18 April. As Martin Jacques wrote in our post-election issue of 16 June, “It is no accident that it was the young rather than the middle-aged or the seniors who were in the vanguard: the young are the bearers and producers of the new… Their elders, by contrast, are steeped in old ways of thinking and doing, having lived through and internalised the values and norms of neoliberalism for more than 30 years.”

The Prime Minister now presides over a squabbling and disintegrating government. Her cabinet ministers are in open revolt against her and one another. The Big Men of the cabinet, David Davis and Boris Johnson, strut and scheme. Their younger colleagues regard their naked ambition and self-regard with justified contempt. Meanwhile, the country could not be less prepared for Brexit, which, as Tony Blair said this week, is a spectacular act of “self-harm”.

We have been having fun in recent weeks with our Brexit variations, highlighting the foolish pronouncements of our national leaders. However, in truth, Brexit is no laughing matter. It could be a calamity. The Labour Party is as divided over the issue as the Tories. No one can agree the road ahead or what the most desirable outcome should be. Last weekend, one of Labour’s rising stars, Rebecca Long-Bailey, the shadow business secretary, actually said that she favoured a “cake and eat it” Brexit. This echoed the idiocy of Mr Johnson, who said in the House of Commons that EU leaders could “go whistle” if they expected Britain to pay a substantial separation fee.

How has it come to this? Where is our sense of national purpose? Where is the wisdom and leadership required to guide the nation through this period of self-inflicted crisis?

In 1937, warning against appeasement, Winston Churchill said: “We seem to be moving, drifting, steadily, against our will, against the will of every race and every people and every class, towards some hideous catastrophe. Everybody wishes to stop it, but they do not know how.”

It is not true that everybody wishes to stop Brexit. Many ardently wish for it. And the comparisons made by Andrew Adonis, Will Hutton and others between appeasement and our present predicament are simply wrong: Britain is not existentially threatened by fascism, after all. However, dreadful national leadership is undermining our stability, our geopolitical standing and economic prospects. The Brexit wars inside the Tory party that have brought down David Cameron and destroyed Theresa May are unedifying. And they are a symptom of more than a fractious governing party. They reveal a deeper truth about Great Britain in 2017: we are drifting and we are leaderless. 

Football’s money-go-round

Last week Manchester City signed Tottenham’s Kyle Walker for a reported £50m, a world record for a defender and the highest ever fee for an English player. Walker is a decent full-back but few would suggest he is among Europe’s very best. The crazy transfer prices of this summer reflect the success of the Premier League, a hyper-meritocracy whose players, managers and owners reflect our globalised world. It is the most-watched league in the world, with broadcast revenues to match. Even the bottom club receives £100m a year from the TV deals.

But as transfer fees and wages rise (Arsenal’s Alexis Sanchez wants £400,000 a week), many football fans, who are among the most passionate in sport, have had to put up with stagnant wages or small increases swallowed by inflation. Surely the teams should be using some of their windfall to lower the often ludicrous cost of match day tickets and replica kits? Jeremy Corbyn and Labour have considered proposals to cap ticket prices. We would support that. 

Photo: Getty
When discussing the BBC's gender pay gap, remember why the Tories wanted star salaries published
July 19th, 2017, 06:35 PM

The BBC is a standing rebuke to the idea the state can't get anything right and everything should be left to the market. The publication of its pay data is designed to embarrass it.

The release of salaries of BBC stars earning more than £150,000 has inevitably, and rightly, provoked a debate about the gender pay gap. Prior to the release it was revealed that only a third of the 96 people on the list are women and the full numbers show an even more unequal picture. There are just two women, Claudia Winkleman and Fiona Bruce, in the top 10. John Humphrys comes in at number five on between £600,000 - £650,000, but his Today co-presenter Sarah Montague doesn't even make it over the £150,000 threshold.

The Beeb talks a good talk about diversity and equality, and is trying to walk the walk as well. It has stringent targets and monitoring programmes covering gender, ethnicity, sexuality and disability, and has recently made renewed efforts to get women into senior roles. Yet the figures show there is still a long way to go, as least when it comes to what women are paid compared to their male counterparts. 

Yet as we pore over the earnings of household names, it's worth remembering the real reasons why the BBC has been told to reveal what they earn. 

David Cameron's government initially told the BBC it would have to publish the salaries of all those stars earning more than £450,000 during negotiations over a new 11-year Royal Charter, the mechanism through which it is run at arm's length from the state. When Theresa May took power, that figure was lowered to £150,000 - which Culture Secretary Karen Bradley insisted brings the corporation in line with the civil service. 

This argument would hold more weight if the BBC did not already publish the salaries (and expenses) of all managers who earn more than that figure (set, as it so often is, at the level of the Prime Minister's salary). Those people - around 100 of them - are the real civil servants at the BBC. They are the people who make the key decision about how the corporation pursues its public service mandate. 

Star presenters and journalists are a different kettle of fish altogether. They are not deciding how the corporation is run, they are, an admittedly vital, ingredient in producing the BBC's programmes. The suggestion that because they are working for an organisation funded by the license fee they should be subjected to a greater level of pay transparency than those working for the commercial sector stems from the same place as the argument by Tory MPs and others that the BBC should leave popular shows such as Strictly Come Dancing to ITV or Channel 4.

As BBC director-generals past and present, and many others across the broadcasting industry, have argued, revealing stars' pay puts the BBC at a huge disadvantage to other broadcasters. It will inflate the cost of hiring the best people and biggest names as they compare themselves to others and angle for whatever they think they are worth. It will also allow rivals to know exactly what sort of pay offer is likely to enable them to lure away the BBC's best talent. The BBC already has a policy of pay restraint, and while some like Gary Lineker - the second highest earner on over £1.75m - say they have turned down larger sums to stay with the corporation, others will be more easily poached. As the press gleefully lay into those they deem unworthy of their pay packets, it will let everyone else in the industry know that taking a lucrative job on a BBC programme will paint a target on your back that could be avoided by taking the same money elsewhere. 

The truth is it's impossible to separate most attempts to change the way the BBC operates from the politics of those doing it. The BBC is seen as hideously biased by many of those on both the left and the right, but large chunks of the right also object to a popular state broadcaster in principle. Alongside the NHS, it is a visible and loved publicly-funded institution. A standing rebuke to the idea the state can't get anything right and everything should be left to the market. 

As my colleague Stephen Bush has written, revealing pay packets is designed to weaken public affection for the broadcaster - to turn love for familiar faces on their favourite programmes into disgust with "fat-cat luvvies" ripping off the licence fee payer. That'll certainly be the line pushed by much of the press, which also appears to have suddenly become very concerned about the comparative pay of the BBC's women, just days after complaining bitterly about the 13th Doctor Who being played by one. 

Both the Telegraph and the Daily Mail have regularly employed journalists whose primary role was to find negative stories about the corporation. That these organisations have a commercial incentive to do down the BBC (none more so than the Times and Sun, who are ultimately owned by a man trying to take complete control of Sky, Rupert Murdoch) is a widely understood factor in their obsession, even if they rarely declare it.

The government may well have overestimated how much damage revealing big pay cheques will really do. The assumption people who appear on TV are raking it in is already pretty widespread. But the long-term damage of making it harder for the BBC to hire and hold on to stars who the public want to watch will undermine its programming, and, eventually, make it less popular. 

So while the debate about who makes what and why is an important one, let's not forget that the people who started it are more interested in seeing a weaker, less loved and less enjoyable BBC. 

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Piers Morgan calls female journalist “petal” – while boasting about his fake scoop
July 19th, 2017, 06:35 PM

The presenter broke an embargo on the BBC salary story and thinks he’s king.

Piers Morgan, the pomposity-of-man-made-flesh, broke a press embargo on today’s story about the salaries of top BBC staff. Journalists were given the information on the condition that they would not release it to the public until after a certain time. Morgan, in line with his usual journalistic ethics, tweeted the information early.

This riled fellow journalists, who tweeted complaints about his behaviour. One such journalist was the Guardian’s Ian Prior, who compared Morgan to “that repulsive brat who sneakily unwraps his presents on December 23”. Another was Sky News’ Beth Rigby, who described Morgan’s actions as “utterly disgraceful”.

And guess which one was patronisingly referred to as a delicate flower?

Yep, you gottit, the lady reporter!

“Oh settle down, petal,” Morgan replied to Rigby – and then when accused of sexism and talking down to her, insisted that “flowers are gender-fluid”.

Do you know what else is fluid? Morgan’s definition of a “scoop”. All journalists were in possession of the salary figures, given to them under government guidance by the BBC. To then write up this information is not a scoop. But we all know Morgan’s understanding of what makes a story has always been a little murky

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The Gender Agenda: is it possible to raise children free of sexist stereotypes?
July 19th, 2017, 06:35 PM

A new book charts the many subtle ways boys and girls are treated differently.

There are two schools of thought regarding gender-neutral parenting. The first says you can’t do it. The second says you can’t do it, either, but you might as well die trying.

There are variations on this, of course. There’s “look, I tried it but found my daughter to be magically hardwired to like glitter unicorns and my son to like machine guns, so there’s nothing I can do about it”. Then there’s “I’m raising my son in a man-cave because I read something about testosterone, spatial rotation and monkeys – or was it rats? - written in 1997 and you can’t argue with science”. There’s also “none shall ever know the sex of my child and I’ll change their nappies with my eyes closed, avoiding unconscious bias even if it means spreading poo everywhere”.

All of these options have their pros and cons, although personally I find the defeatist ones most tempting. Gender-neutral parenting is gardening in a gale; whatever your good intentions,  the environment is against you. And as soon as you slip up there will then be people around you (elderly uncles, usually) who sweep in to inform you that “boys will be boys” (an early precursor to “Brexit means Brexit”, two phrases as destructive as they are utterly meaningless). If only there was a way of telling them “but I knew this would happen! And I’d do it again, dammit! THIS DOESN’T MEAN I’M WRONG!”

Thankfully Ros Ball and James Millar, who run the @GenderDiary twitter account, have written a book that just might help. Parents of one girl and one boy, the pair have been keeping a record of discrepancies in how their children are treated since 2012. The Gender Agenda, published on Friday, is part testimony, part how-to guide for any parent thinking of taking on that big, bad pink/blue world out there.

As with the Twitter account, the book uses a “gender anonymous” voice, keeping the reader in the dark about whether they are dealing with a male or female author (this ambiguity being one of the reasons the pair feel their social media has been less subject to the trolling). I asked them about their project and received the following – strictly gender neutral! – responses.

You cite There’s A Good Girl – Marianne Grabrucker’s 1988 account of the gender stereotyping experienced while raising her daughter – as the main inspiration for @GenderDiary and The Gender Agenda. Much has changed since the time Grabrucker was writing. Why do you think there is still a need for parents to provide evidence that gender stereotyping exists?

Gender stereotyping still 100% exists! The problem is it’s more subtle and that’s why we had to write the book to prove it.

One of Marianne’s early diary entries is when her daughter is 6 days old. Marianne and her husband bump in to an acquaintance, who on finding out they’ve had a girl says “Well congratulations all the same old chap!” Marianne feels hurt and humiliated, “it’s as though my daughter were nothing”. At that time it was still OK to express disappointment that a baby was a girl.

These days we’re into the third wave of feminism (or 4th or 5th depending on how you count these things) and it’s about much more subtle (and often disregarded) cultural and societal barriers that are imposed on men and women. You can see it in the huge popularity of Laura Bates’s Everyday Sexism project. Until she gave women a space to share how unequal their experiences were many people might have told you – we’ve done it, we have equality. As long as children still see boys and girls treated differently they will take it as read that boys and girls are different and that puts limits on their lives and ambitions.

I have three boys, who are all different in temperament and interests, yet people still manage to characterise each of them as “typical” for their sex. If both of your children had been the same sex, do you think Gender Diary would have happened?

No it wouldn’t have happened. Or at least not in the form that it came about. Having children of different sex meant we could make the comparison between the ways they were treated.

We do wonder if we’d had two boys how things might have been different because we don’t exclude ourselves from the gender policing – we can be guilty of it too. One of the big lessons we’ve learned from the project is how the gendering of boys is so destructive to them and consequently women and girls - and to both their ambitions and outlooks. The culture of toxic masculinity kicks in from quite a young age making it far harder to raise a feminist son than a feminist daughter and we need everyone to get on board with feminism to achieve a genuine equality not just a legal one. To paraphrase Gloria Steinem, we’ve started to raise our daughters like sons, now we must be brave enough to raise our sons like daughters.

One of the most interesting – but also worrying – aspects of the diary is the way in which you find people making up excuses for literally anything being associated with being a boy or a girl. Do you think people notice they are doing this?

Folk often don’t realise they are doing it. But why would they? We are all products of the culture in which we are raised. You don’t need to google too hard to find reports of the various experiments carried out over the years that show people alter their behaviour towards the same baby depending on whether they are told it’s a boy or a girl.

Sometimes it can be obvious what’s happening. Do you think it’s always useful to make people aware of what they’re doing, or do you risk pushback?

We’ve done a bit of both in terms of speaking up – it’s been an experiment really. In an ideal world we’d want to make people aware. But yes you absolutely risk pushback. Gender is a core part of most people’s identity and parenting is similarly fundamental. No-one wants to hear the suggestion they are somehow coming up short as a parent. And we’ve never been about criticising others, it’s always been about trying to expand people’s awareness of their own and other’s behaviour. Everyone’s welcome to then make their own call on how they react to that but it’s hard to believe most parents would actually sign up for putting limits on their kids’ lives.

When we do presentations around the Gender Diary/Gender Agenda James talks about how he was more rabid in the early days and would challenge the dads he played football with – most noticeably one who had a son and daughter and made reference to "throwing like a girl" – but over time the same dads became less enthusiastic in their invites to the pub after football. If you’re not at the table then you can’t challenge the culture at all.

One theme throughout your book is that it may be harder for boys to associate with “girl” things (seen as a demotion) than girls with “boy” things (by contrast, a promotion). Do you think we need a different approach in supporting gender non-conformity in boys compared to girls? Your son was very young when you started the diary – as he’s got older, have you found the challenges very different to those facing your daughter? 

It’s complicated. It’s that thing of whether you should have "books for boys" because that gets boys reading and "science kits for girls" in pink boxes because that gets them interested in STEM. Ros calls this "appeasement". It’s the balance between trying to bend the world to be how you want it to be and dealing with the world as it is. We’re not immune to pragmatism but it often comes at a cost.

We’ve found explaining the benefits of feminism to a girl is fairly straightforward – you get to do everything a man can do. Bingo. It doesn’t work so easily the other way round because society is so down on all things feminine that a boy quite understandably wonders what’s the benefit. We can bring up feminist daughters until the cows come home but if we don’t crack doing the same thing with our sons then those daughters are going to continue to live in a tediously sexist world.

You’re open about the fact you think gender-neutral parenting isn’t a possibility. I’d agree. Nonetheless, it can be difficult to strike the balance between challenging stereotypes and wanting to help your child adapt to the world so that they can be happy in the here and now. Have you ever found yourself policing gender in a way you regret, or wish you’d done differently?

Yes, all the time. Finding that balance between challenging stereotypes and dealing with your own discomfort is constant.

I once stopped my oldest son wearing a dress to school for World Book Day out of fear that he’d be made fun of; his younger brother has since done this several times, with no problems…

There’s examples in the book of things where we’ve come up short. There’s an entry in the diary where our son had hairclips in his hair. When our daughter said "they’re not for him" Ros assumed it was the hairclips she was referring to when in fact it was something he was holding. Ros then took the hairclips out when she left the house, something she wouldn’t have done for our daughter.

But parent shouldn’t beat themselves up about not being perfect. We probably did do that a bit to ourselves in the early days but the more we realised what we were up against in society, culture and capitalism the more slack we cut ourselves. What’s more important here is the fact that you and we both do this because we think we need to protect our sons/daughters from being teased or bullied, and we get that. That’s totally understandable, but it does perpetuate the problem if adults enforce kids to conform because of the fear of other people’s views.

There’s an LR Knost quote that we return to time and time again that helps us with that dilemma: “It’s not our job to toughen our children up to face a cruel and heartless world. It’s our job to raise children who will make the world a little less cruel and heartless.”

As your children move away from toys and CBeebies there will be whole new areas of gendered nonsense to confront – would you be interested in curating resources for that?

Now the kids are that bit older we feel it’s time to leave them alone in terms of projects – we’ve always kept them anonymous and don’t want them to be subject to any scrutiny they don’t want. Hopefully when they are teenagers in a few years they’ll make informed choices and maybe we’ll all be able to work together on a project! We’d expect that just as early years are crucial when it comes to gender stereotypes and identity the teenage years will be too.

We’ll continue to use the @GenderDiary Twitter feed for curating resources and sharing information and supporting the brilliant Let Toys be Toys campaign. We’d like to update our feminist lists of books and films for kids on a regular basis as there’s a lot of great new stuff out there and we’ll get our twitter followers involved in that as always.

Things have been changing since you started the diary in 2012. If you could name one thing, what do you think is the best battle won in recent years in terms of challenging gender stereotyping affecting young children? And what could we learn from it?

Shared Parental Leave. It’s not perfect, but now it’s here it’s not going to be undone and hopefully it can be improved and upgraded over time. The big lesson from it is that it gives parents the chance to model the alternative. A bit like we said at the beginning. The law has been changed but that’s only half the battle. Now the culture has to change. The more parents that split the childcare in those very early days the more chance that both parents remain very engaged in bringing up their children. If kids see more men on the school gates, more women in visible high status positions you’ve got to hope that ideas around what each gender can and should do will melt a little.

***

There’s no doubting the process Miller and Ball have pursued is slow (I have visions of my own sons reaching adulthood and writing an exposé of the absurdities of progressive parenting – an Oranges Bloody Well Are The Only Fruit, as it were). Then again, if the alternative is accepting the status quo, what else can we do?

As The Gender Agenda shows, we’re not imagining unequal treatment. It’s there, all around us. Nonetheless, change is possible. Of course, in the meantime you may still end up with a son made of slugs, snails and puppy dogs’ tails, a daughter made of sugar and spice. Just remember: it doesn’t mean you’re wrong!

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War of the flying violins: why are airlines and musicians locked in a battle for the skies?
July 19th, 2017, 06:35 PM

A bagpiper is the latest musician to be forced off a plane due to an instrument. 

When Carrie Miller opened her cello case after a domestic US flight in January this year, the instrument she had spent years saving up for was in pieces. Miller, a graduate music student at Florida State University, was devastated. She had an important recital coming up, and she had relied on teaching cello to cover her student fees. She could not afford to buy another cello of the same standard.

On a GoFundMe page she set up in the wake of the incident, she wrote: “Not having my instrument this past week has been horrible. I feel so lost without it.”

Miller believes the cello was destroyed because she was unable to check it in at the gate, as she had previously done, and instead forced to stow it in the hold. Two years earlier, Karl Fenner experienced a similar shock. He flew back from a successful audition for Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, and checked his double bass into the hold. When he picked it up at the other end, the neck of the instrument was snapped in two.

To understand the dilemma facing professional musicians taking flight, imagine you have a job which requires travelling between cities, countries and occasionally continents. Now imagine that in order to do that job successfully, you have to carry around a 19th century, one-of-a-kind vase. Finally, imagine you paid for that vase with years of savings or a loan worth tens of thousands of pounds, while the most you can expect to earn is £30,000 a year.

In an interview with classical musician magazine The Strad, Fenner, the double bassist, said he had paid around $400 a month for almost eight years to buy the instrument, which he valued at between $35,000 and $40,000. The flight case, which was also destroyed, would cost thousands of dollars to replace.

For this reason, most professional musicians try to take small instruments on planes as hand luggage. Doing so, though, can mean confrontation. Earlier this month, Jennifer Hutcheon was frogmarched from a boarding gate in Belgium after refusing to allow her bagpipes to be stowed in the hold. In June, the freelance violinist Aingeala De Búrca claimed she was forced to leave a plane travelling from Bristol to Dublin for the same reason. Meanwhile, in the United States, a flight attendant allegedly tried to wrestle a violin from the indignant Yennifer Correia's hands.

Musicians have been travelling by plane for decades, though, so why do these clashes continue? “A number of airlines have responded to musicians’ complaints by changing their hand baggage policies to allow violins and violas in cabin overhead lockers,” said Charlotte Smith, the online editor of The Strad. “However, the lack of policy consistency across the airlines is confusing for musicians and causes endless problems at the check-in desk – particularly when airline staff are unaware that the policy has been implemented.”

A glance at airline regulations reveals how nerve-wracking it is for musicians to take to the skies. EasyJet allows violins, violas, piccolos, flutes, clarinets, bugles and trumpets as hand baggage, but “strictly at the Captain’s discretion”. Ryanair, on the other hand, charges a fee for any musical instrument which the airline “elects” to carry, and describes large instruments as “inherently unsuitable” for the hold.

For cellists, who must buy an extra seat to bring their cello into the cabin, airport bureaucracy has gone to farcical extremes. In 2016, Jane Bevan, who booked an extra seat for her cello on a flight from Switzerland to Boston, was told at check-in that it needed an ESTA visa. She was unable to board the flight. For musicians travelling to the US, another concern is the ivory ban. Since 2014, musicians with old instruments containing ivory must carry documentation showing that it dates to before 1976.

The number of incidents reported is on the rise, although Smith acknowledges this could be in part because musicians are now more likely to go public. After the cellist John Kaboff was forced off a plane in Washington DC for being a “security risk”, he shared his story on Facebook Live. Thousands watched it. And in the end, both Kaboff and his cello made the next flight to Chicago.

Photo: Getty
Will revelations about stars' £150k salaries weaken the BBC?
July 19th, 2017, 06:35 PM

The BBC has always been pioneering, but now it's made the Mail and the Telegraph care about the gender pay gap.

Will anger at high salaries kill off the BBC? The Corporation will publish details of its employees earning more than £150k today – or, as the right-wing press will put it, “earning more than the Prime Minister”. (There are nearly 100 in that bracket.)

“Pay Panic At The BBC” salivates the Mail's splash. Adding to the Beeb's discomfort, two-thirds of those earning above £150,000 are men. “BBC faces sexist pay storm” is the i's splash. “BBC's gender pay gap revealed” is the Telegraph's.

The BBC has always been pioneering, but making the Mail and the Telegraph care about the gender pay gap is right up there with anything the Radiophonic Workshop cooked up in its heyday.

That's not to defend the BBC's gender pay gap, but the essential truth is that the reason why the Corporation has been forced to reveal it isn't because the government is concerned about the glass ceiling at New Broadcasting House. Nor has Paul Dacre suddenly started quoting The Second Sex to his deputies. It's all because the hope is that the resulting public anger at “fatcat salaries” will weaken the BBC.

Will it? The short answer is: I don't know, ask a pollster. But my anecdotal impression of what happens when people recognise me off the telly, is that most people think that everyone they see on TV is coining it anyway. (Regrettably untrue. Subscribe to the NS now, etc etc). 

I'm not sure that “They're on loads of money!” is the killer app that the BBC's critics believe it to be. 

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The academisation of the Demon Headmaster
July 19th, 2017, 06:35 PM

After 15 years out of the education system, the children’s series returns – and the Tories are in power. Author Gillian Cross tells us what’s changed.

It’s 2017, and a sinister solitary force is attempting to dictate society’s values and children’s futures. Teachers have no say, government ministers revel in the new system, and it’s the pupils who suffer. Power over our minds is increasingly centralised, dictated by rigid rules imposed against our will. And an unpopular man in a suit seems to control everything.

Sound familiar?

Yes, it’s the plotline to the latest Demon Headmaster book, of course. The children’s author and Carnegie Medal winner Gillian Cross has released the latest in her much-loved series, 15 years after the last one – and now under a Conservative government.

Although The Demon Headmaster: Total Control (published by Oxford University Press this month) is not explicitly political, the effects of successive Tory government education reforms since the last book in 2002 weigh heavy on the plot and pupils.


Oxford University Press

First up, the Demon Headmaster’s school is now an academy. “Hazelbrook Academy: Where every student is a star”, reads the school’s big blue sign, a corporate replacement of its old wooden gates.

Fans of the books or the Nineties BBC TV adaptation won’t recognise this new school. It has a buzzer, glossy gates, sky-blue memory sticks for parents, an “Information hub” instead of the library, and a member of staff with a badge that reads “Deputy Head, Public Relations”. There are livestreams, video conferences, drones and holograms.

It is a story of dystopian academisation. The premise is that students are forced – via hypnosis, it turns out – to excel at activities for which they don’t have a natural aptitude. But they are only really being made to mimic success for their megalomaniac headmaster, and the benefit of the visiting Prime Minister. For example, mathsy Ethan is brainwashed into displaying impressive football skills; but he can’t remember a thing when un-hypnotised.


The BBC adaptation

While the title character remains the same enigmatic, pale presence – with no real name and a rather naïve intention to control the population via a single school – the cast of heroic children is different. The classic characters, Dinah, Lloyd and Harvey, have been replaced by Lizzie, Ethan and Tyler. And the retro palmtops – through which they’re controlled by hypnotic octopus graphics in the 1985 book The Prime Minister’s Brain – have been swapped for mind-interfering drones.

“I thought actually there is a lot to say now,” Gillian Cross tells me, when I ask why she’s brought the Demon Headmaster back after 15 years. “I really don’t think one should write books with messages, but schools are so different now from how they used to be that I got excited about the Demon Headmaster being back in a school.”


Gillian Cross. Oxford University Press

We meet for a cup of tea at Oxford University Press’s grand neoclassical building on the edge of the city centre. Its green grounds gleam in the sun. For the author of one of the darkest children’s stories, Cross looks wholesome in a red, green and orange-embroidered waistcoat and a necklace of chunky wooden beads. But she is all but cosy. Her conversations with teachers, parents and pupils over the years have made her furious about the government’s interference in our education system.

“Since I wrote the first books, education has become politicised to such an extent that it doesn’t seem at all bizarre that the Prime Minister should be invited to view what looks like the model of the perfect school,” she tells me. “He [the Demon Headmaster] has the possibility of turning out the workforce that the country requires, which he sees as blatantly the purpose of education.”

Like Michael Gove? Cross raises her eyebrows. “There are lots of political points I could have made but I don’t think you should be doing things in children’s books that are over the heads of children… obviously the Headmaster would love to have an academy chain, clearly.”


When texting hit the Demon Headmaster

Cross, who has four grown-up children, lives in North Dorset with her husband. She is 71, and they have just celebrated their golden wedding anniversary. Her mother was a secondary school English teacher. Through her family, children and writing, she has been “in touch” with what goes on in UK schools for decades. And she doesn’t like everything she sees.

She feels teachers are too restricted by a government burdening them with administration and box-ticking – and pupils are pressured to be what they’re not, with tests like SATs.

“I was quite interested in the pressure that there is now on children in school to succeed at things that they may not have any innate sympathy with,” she says, referring to the plot of her latest book. “Their agendas are drawn up for them and they have to jump through hoops.”


The original Demon Headmaster story. Oxford University Press

Cross also believes social media is an added pressure for schoolchildren – a new development since she wrote her first books. She hasn’t included social media explicitly in her new book, so as not to date it – but she couldn’t avoid texting.

“There’s the whole thing so hated by authors of fiction of mobile phones, which are just a pain in the neck,” she sighs. “It’s quite difficult to have suspense because, if you have people separated, well why didn’t they phone each other? Then if you do use mobile phones, then why is this phone not flat now? Why haven’t they charged it? It’s just endless.”

The intervening period since Cross’s last Demon Headmaster book and 2017 saw a Harry Potter-fuelled boom in fantasy fiction for children. Was Cross worried her audience would no longer be interested in a reality-based villain?

“There was a time when I felt unfashionable,” she nods. “But I was fortunate enough always to get my books published. I’ve never written fantasy, because it just doesn’t interest me to write.”


BBC

And she hopes that basing her story in a modern-day school will give children and parents a chance to consider what schools are for. “I’m not sure it’s the kind of book people reflect on,” she smiles. “But it’s probably time for all of us to be thinking more basic things about education. Why are we paying all this money and doing this thing? What would success for your children mean?”

She pulls a pile of Demon Headmaster books towards her to begin signing.

“The issue is that education is so much more centralised and dominated by the government than it used to be, and that’s such an opportunity for the Headmaster,” she says, with a wry grin. “If you can get control of the Prime Minister or the cabinet or something, then you can exert huge power over education in a way that I don’t think would have been true 35 years ago, which is when I wrote the first book.”

The Demon Headmaster: Total Control by Gillian Cross is out on Oxford University Press

BBC screengrab
Women will keep being exploited if we don't give them the economic security they need
July 19th, 2017, 06:35 PM

It should come as no surprise that some employers are prepared to abuse their power for sexual purposes.

Throughout my late teens and early twenties, I worked in pubs and bars. I started my first proper job soon after I turned 18 (before that I’d done bits of babysitting for family friends, and briefly had a paper round) after answering an advert posted on Facebook. I told my boss I wanted shifts on Friday and Saturday nights but was sometimes asked to work until after midnight on weeknights – leaving me exhausted in my sixth form classes the next day.

I could have refused, but then I might not have been given shifts at all. As I was on a zero-hours contract my employer was under no obligation to offer me work. I liked earning money to spend on clothes and going out with my friends, so I kept my mouth shut. And when my manager texted me out of the blue on a night I wasn’t working – telling me he had cocaine and champagne and asking me to come to his hotel room – I wasn’t sure how to handle it. Unless I made it clear I wasn’t interested, there was a risk the situation would escalate. But I needed to find a way of doing so without offending him, otherwise I could lose my job.

Rejecting a man’s sexual advances without causing offence is a challenge most women have struggled with at some point. We’re socialised to believe we have a duty to be nice. That we should be flattered someone is interested in us, however uncomfortable the situation feels. Sometimes, when men feel insulted they become violent. I have a friend who laughed at a stranger who attempted to chat her up in a club and was punched in the face as a result. I wasn’t scared my boss would physically hurt me – at least not at a conscious level. But I was aware of his power over me as an employer, which was exacerbated by the insecure nature of my contract.

In the end I quit. After a couple of months of creepy comments and “accidental” physical contact, I determined that the pros were outweighed by the cons. Because I was living with my parents and only really working for spending money, the decision was fairly easy. Becoming unemployed didn’t place me at risk of hunger, homelessness or debt. I had no dependents to support. I didn’t need to worry about being classed as “voluntarily unemployed” by the JobCentre and being denied out-of-work benefits for 26 weeks as a result.

Most people in insecure employment are not middle-class teenagers with parents who cover all of their basic living costs. Many people on zero-hours contracts or in “gig economy” faux self-employment – as cleaners, delivery drivers and all-purpose dogsbodies – rely on these unreliable income streams to keep a roof over their heads. The majority are women. Research has found that experiences like mine are common place. In the US, 40 per cent of female fast food workers have experienced sexual harassment at work – including sexual jokes, teasing, touching, kissing and comment about sexual orientation. Up to 90 per cent of waitresses report sexual harassment from both customers and colleagues. Quitting often isn’t a viable option.

Occasionally, particularly egregious examples of workplace sexual exploitation will make the news. A few months ago the Scottish Sun reported on a care home manager in Scotland who pressured a zero-hours employee into sleeping with him, promising her a full-time contract if she complied. Mainly, though, as a society we seem content to turn a blind eye to the issue.

The relationship between employer and employee involves an imbalance of power. Under capitalism, most of us sell our labour in order to pay for the things we need to stay alive. It should come as no surprise to anyone with even the vaguest understanding of human behaviour that some employers are prepared to exploit this unequal dynamic for sexual purposes. In the factories of the Victorian era, poverty-stricken women and children were regularly raped and abused. It’s the job of the state to protect workers: by introducing employment regulations, helping with legal costs and providing a welfare safety net that sustains people through periods of unemployment.

Not only does the current UK government seem uninterested in fulfilling this duty of care – over the past several years it has actively made things worse. Cuts to legal aid have made it all but impossible for many workers to speak up about sexual exploitation and other workplace abuse. Changes to the benefits system have made unemployment an even more terrifying prospect than it already was. A token effort has been made to respond to the growing use of zero-hours contracts, but employers won’t be prevented from using them. Meanwhile, the recently released Taylor review offers little hope of increased security for gig economy workers.

Amid the justified outrage about abusive messages sent to women MPs, it seems worth reminding ourselves that the consequences of policy decisions taken by those politicians are also a feminist concern. Every time this government has hacked away at the welfare system, it has placed women at increased risk. There are women stuck in abusive relationships because the alternative is homelessness. Mothers forced into sex work just to feed their children. Millions of UK women endure derogatory sexual comments, and worse, in the workplace. Many lack the freedom politicians have to resist or complain.

If the experiences of the poorest, most vulnerable women matter less to someone than those of female MPs directly complicit in their suffering, I struggle to see why they should call themselves a feminist at all. Gender inequality is primarily about power – and power has an undeniable economic dimension. Protecting women from abuse requires more than just policing public discourse, we need to address the material conditions that leave them open to exploitation. 

Photo: Getty
SRSLY #102: Game of Thrones / Haim / Queen Anne
July 18th, 2017, 06:35 PM

On the pop culture podcast this week: "Dragonstone", the first episode of Game of Thrones series 7 (spoilers abound), the new Haim album Something to Tell You and the RSC play Queen Anne. 

This is SRSLY, the pop culture podcast from the New Statesman. Here, you can find links to all the things we talk about in the show as well as a bit more detail about who we are and where else you can find us online.

Listen using the player below. . .

. . .or subscribe in iTunes. We’re also on StitcherRSS and SoundCloud – but if you use a podcast app that we’re not appearing in, let us know.

SRSLY is hosted by Caroline Crampton and Anna Leszkiewicz, the NS’s head of podcasts and pop culture writer. We’re on Twitter as @c_crampton and @annaleszkie, where between us we post a heady mixture of Serious Journalism, excellent gifs and regularly ask questions J K Rowling needs to answer.

The Links

Get tickets for our upcoming events (including another Game of Thrones quiz here).

Game of Thrones

Anna's review of the first episode.

Caroline's piece about GoT podcasts.

Haim

The album on Spotify.

The Pitchfork review.

Queen Anne

More details about the play.

For next time:

We are watching S3E12 of Brooklyn Nine-Nine.

If you’d like to talk to us about the podcast or make a suggestion for something we should read or cover, you can email srslypod[at]gmail.com.

You can also find us on Twitter @srslypod, or send us your thoughts on tumblr here. If you like the podcast, we’d love you to leave a review on iTunes - this helps other people come across it.

We love reading out your emails. If you have thoughts you want to share on anything we’ve discussed, or questions you want to ask us, please email us on srslypod[at]gmail.com, or @ us on Twitter @srslypod, or get in touch via tumblr here. We also have Facebook now.

Our theme music is “Guatemala - Panama March” (by Heftone Banjo Orchestra), licensed under Creative Commons. 

See you next week!

PS If you missed #101, check it out here.

How Labour activists are already building a digital strategy to win the next election
July 18th, 2017, 06:35 PM

Momentum volunteers are developing, coding and designing online tools to get Jeremy Corbyn elected.

Part way through Momentum’s launch of its digital hub, participants join in with a “Clivestream” – a Google Hangout with the Labour MP Clive Lewis – projected on to a wall, calling in from a field at Tolpuddle Festival.

The stunt is intended to fuse the future of socialism with its deep historical roots. The festival is held annually to remember the 19th century Tolpuddle Martyrs, early trade union activists whose harsh treatment sparked massive protests. “[Tolpuddle] is often seen as a turning-point in the rights of working people,” says Lewis, before the call is briefly gate-crashed by an animal rights campaigner approaching from behind in a “Spanish Civil War Ale” T-shirt.

“In terms of what you guys are doing, you’re basically on the cutting-edge of 21st century socialism,” Lewis continues. “And its ability to be able to connect through to hundreds and thousands and millions of people. You’ve seen in the last election, how powerful the technology [is] and the growing impact it’s having on our democracy.”

The symbolism of the video link is not lost on those present.

“I think it’s really significant to have an MP livestream in from Tolpuddle, which is obviously a traditional left-wing event to commemorate the Tolpuddle Martyrs, livestreaming into an East London hackathon done by Momentum,” says Joe Todd, Momentum’s press and communications officer.

At the launch, a young and diverse group of around 60 volunteer coders, developers, and designers, meet at Newspeak House in Shoreditch – a “community space for political technologists”. Most are Londoners, but some have come from as far afield as Yorkshire, and even Paris. Momentum hopes to replicate this at regular events in different cities across the UK, as it aims to develop the technological tools to help Labour win the next election.

Although this officially isn’t until 2022, Momentum doesn’t want to be taken by surprise again if a general election is called early. The group built its carpool site to help activists know where to canvass, called My Nearest Marginal, in about a week when the last election was called. “No one slept, basically, for the whole of the campaign,” recalls Todd. "We went on an absolute bare-bones budget.”

***

By planning a long-term digital strategy, Momentum hopes to improve on Labour’s 2017 election performance. Its social media team is developing tools to analyse the success of videos and posts among each demographic (one in three people on Facebook viewed its videos during the campaign), in order to expand its reach further.

The team is also building its own online payments system – it had been using PayPal, which charges a fixed fee, meaning “losing about a quarter of our donations to the one per cent”, according to digital officer and former Bernie Sanders staff member Erika Uyterhoeven. 

She is not the only former Sanders campaign worker interested in Corbynism. Supporters of the two left-wing politicians built a fruitful relationship during the election campaign, with activists coming over from the US to help train canvassers. Ben Packer, who helped code during the campaign, says: “I’m just trying to help people steal our stuff… Even though the issues are somewhat country specific, they’re analogous – you want a better National Health Service, we want some national health service; the tech is the same.”

He’s currently trying to build an app for Momentum that allows anyone to create an event, which will then appear to other members in the area.

Much of the technology being developed is used for internal Labour Party votes as well as external election campaigning – the phone bank app, for example.

Momentum members are currently being canvassed to vote in potentially crucial conference committee elections. Yet activists at the digital hub launch said such internal party organising won’t lead to deselection attempts.

Todd dismissed recent stories about a “deselection list” of MPs floated on a local Momentum branch’s Facebook group, saying it was “patently not a deselection plot”, and the story “really lowers journalistic standards”.

***

Momentum’s membership is up to 27,500, from 5,000 before the leadership challenge to Corbyn last year. Add in Labour’s polling lead – the most recent YouGov survey put it eight points ahead of the Tories – and “momentum” is a feeling as well as a name.

The group thinks it has the Tories on the run, and finds the idea of the Conservatives copying its strategy laughable. “If you don’t have the political programme or the vision that mobilises people and makes them enthusiastic and passionate, the technology’s useless. So the Tories can steal it all they want,” says Todd.

However, he sees no prospect of this happening any time soon. Looking at Theresa May’s potential successors, he says: “Their most inspired choice seems to be David Davis, which is a real indictment of the party” (perhaps Davis could make “Momentum’s most inspired choice” his leadership election slogan).

The activists recognise criticisms as well. While the enthusiasm and expertise represented by the digital hub may well attract more young people, it seems less apparent that it would win over older working-class voters in the Midlands and North.

“There was a swing against Labour in some places, and I don’t think the strategy should be to replace those seats with seats in the South, it needs to be a coalition,” Todd acknowledges. Yet he argues that “Momentum’s a lot more than what you see today”, referring to members across the country who are “embedded in all sorts of communities”.

How closely this central structure of Momentum is linked with its members across the country is up for debate, especially after controversial constitutional changes earlier this year. Rida Vaquas – who wasn’t at the event but is a member of Momentum’s governing National Coordinating Group – argues: “There is very little way, if any, that local branches can co-ordinate Momentum’s national activity in line with their own work, as local branches are no longer represented in Momentum’s democratic structures.”

When asked whether they do a good job co-ordinating national social media activity with local branches, Harry from the social media team admits: “Not really, that’s something we need to work on”. Ruth Berry, digital officer, sees the Hub as a promising way for “communicating with our membership across the country”, as “local groups can now use this digital hub to feed into us what their problems are, and how they can be best fixed”.

In a recent article, Tony Blair panned the electoral offerings put forward by both sides in June – particularly as far as Brexit strategies were concerned – calling them “two competing visions of the 1960s”.

Still, the campaign being built at Momentum’s digital hub appears as innovative as it was electorally useful at the election. However, Berry is adamant that Momentum has no cause to be complacent now: “We haven’t won a general election yet, so our work isn’t done.”

Photo: Getty
Lost in Austen: why does the new £10 note quote one of her characters instead?
July 18th, 2017, 06:35 PM

The quotation used - about a love of reading - is spoken by a character who only pretends to like books. So why choose it?

The Bank of England has done something wonderful - wonderfully terrible. Their new ten-pound note, featuring the novelist Jane Austen, includes a quote about reading from a character who only pretends to like books:

The quotation comes from Miss Caroline Bingley: the rich, “accomplished”, and snobbish sister of Mr Bingley - and one of Pride and Prejudice’s most conceited creations.

In one scene early in the book, she interrupts Mr Darcy’s own reading with this attempt at flattery. She then tries to win him over by agreeing with whatever he says.

Most intriguing of all, as far as the Bank's decision is concerned, is Caroline's snobbishness towards trade. The Bingley family themselves are new money, the narration informs us. Yet this doesn’t stop her from using the Bennett family's lack of connections as a reason to undermine the match between Mr Bingley and Jane.

But could this insecurity towards class and money in fact be a source of Caroline's dislikable, needy behaviour? And in making a character we love to loathe, is Austen playing with the reader’s own predjudice?

Perhaps in this misnomer of a quote, the Bank has stumbled upon an apt tribute to Austen's often twisty work.

If that doesn't convince you, here are some alternative Austen quotations which might fit better:


(Persuasion)


(Love and Friendship)


(Mansfield Park)


(Pride and Prejudice)

(Mansfield Park)
 

Which Game of Thrones podcasts should you listen to?
July 18th, 2017, 06:35 PM

We're here for the bad puns and a lot of plot speculation (minor spoilers).

The problem with being able to watch television whenever you want is that there's no set time for discussing it afterwards. You might have arranged your life around the new series of Game of Thrones, staying up late to watch the first episode of series seven at 2am on Monday morning (the time in BST that it premiered simultaneously on HBO in the US and Sky Atlantic in the UK), but there's no guarantee that your colleagues and friends did the same. "I'll catch up on the weekend," they say as you try and engage them later that day on the subject of Ed Sheeran's weird cameo as a singing campfire chef. "Don't spoil me in the meantime!"

Conversations on social media are similarly fraught with spoiler-based angst. It isn't that surprising, therefore, that dedicated GoT fans are turning to podcasts as a way of accessing instant analysis. Listening to a Thrones-themed podcast has two benefits: it can satiate the desire for speculation and rumour that solitary watching doesn't deal with, and it provides access to a community of other people who want to have the same discussions. In addition, the content of a podcast isn't searchable online, so nobody can complain about being spoiled accidentally. You have to opt in to listen, searching for and downloading an episode, so the only people listening to the show are the ones who want to hear it. It's a safe space.

A brief glance at the Apple Podcasts chart for the TV & Film category confirms that lots of fans are taking this route - at the time of writing, 14 of the top 25 shows are about Game of Thrones.

As I've written about before, podcasts that analyse TV in depth have been around for a while, with popular shows like The West Wing Weekly, Gilmore Guys and Talking Dead gathering big fanbases. Yet there seem to be more Thrones-based shows, and they are collectively charging up the charts in a way I haven't observed around the launch of other series. What is it about this show that had inspired so many podcasts?

Of course, it's partly a matter of scale: Game of Thrones is a huge international hit, and the more people that watch a show, the more people there are who are going to feel inspired to podcast about it. Quite a few of the podcasts near the top of the charts are produced by media outlets, reflecting the interests of their readerships: baldmove.com, geeklyinc.com, The Ringer, the Guardian and Entertainment Weekly all have GoT shows. As a franchise, Game of Thrones is big enough that news outlets report on castings and character deaths like they're actual real-world news, which all provides extra content to be dissected on a podcast.

But there's more to it than that. The show itself is uniquely suited to the podcast form, with its distinct character arcs, sudden plot twists and vast sprawling universe. It is written with the aim of rationing how much information viewers have at any given moment, to fuel speculation and keep us hooked from episode to episode. The chatty, non time-limited format of a podcast is ideally suited to this - hosts can hop between each storyline without the time pressure or need to explain the basics to the lay audience that a conventional broadcast radio show would have. They know they are talking to listeners who already have a high level of GoT knowledge and an appetite for in-depth analysis.

Above all, though, the podcast form is enabling fans to find each other and solving that Monday morning "why won't anyone at work talk to me about Game of Thrones?" problem. Who needs friends when you have headphones?

The five best Game of Thrones podcasts

1. Game of Thrones: The Podcast

Despite the fact that hosts Jim and A.Ron identify themselves as "the Gods of Tits and Wine" on baldmove.com (I know it's a quote from the show, but still, really?), this was my personal favourite. Their "instant take" episode on S7E1 was the most fluent, laidback yet charming one I encountered, and I appreciate their doing a quick reaction episode (for the Thrones junkie who can't wait), followed a day later by a very detailed scene by scene analysis episode that includes lots of listener comments.

2. Nerdette Recaps Game of Thrones with Peter Sagal

Sagal is a beloved US public radio host (even though I've never listened to Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me) and he's a delightful presence on this show alongside hosts Greta Johnsen and Tricia Bobeda. I particularly enjoyed their takedown of Euron Greyjoy in their "Dragonstone" episode.

3. The Citadel from the Guardian / Daily Beast

This podcast hasn't updated for the new series and we're not certain it's coming back for series 7, but I still enjoyed going back and listening to Spencer Ackerman and Laura Hudson's season six predictions, plus their "powerful women and power grabs" episode from earlier in the show's run.

Update: The Citadel is back, with a new home at the Daily Beast. Hear their first series 7 episode here.

4. Game of Owns

This show is a veteran of the GoT podcast space, having been going since 2011. Their episode recaps are a little on the long side for my taste, but they augment their feed with interviews. Recent highlights have included Paula Fairfield, GoT sound designer, and Iwan Rheon, who played Ramsay Bolton.

5. Dragons on the Wall

A straight-forward recap show, but with a swift update schedule and great chemistry between the hosts. Who knows, maybe there will be actual dragons on The Wall before series 7 draws to a close?

Doctor Who's Steven Moffat era will be remembered as a golden age
July 18th, 2017, 06:35 PM

The showrunner's real strength is that he gets Doctor Who.

Steven Moffat has the hardest job in television. Doctor Who is a show like no other. With almost 55 years of established lore, tight BBC budgets, a global fan base ranging from toddlers to pensioners, the burdens that come with being a national institution, and stories based on Mars one week and the Orient Express (in space) the next, the complexities of making Doctor Who are second only to negotiating Brexit.

What is more, Doctor Who fans, myself included, are the worst. We’re fickle to the point of callousness: one week we’re weeping like bereaved children over the “death”, of David Tennant, the next we’re beside ourselves with excitement about Matt Smith, all the time secretly hoping that Paul McGann will reprise the role. We somehow manage to adore all the Doctors, without ever fully committing to any one of them.

Fans are about to go through the grieving quickly-followed-by-falling-in-love process all over again, as Jodie Whittaker takes over from Peter Capaldi, and the show, at long last, gets a female lead. But before another regeneration scrambles our heads, and Moffat hands the reins to Chris Chibnall after the Christmas special, it's worth looking back at seven remarkable years in which Moffat has made some captivating television.

Moffat took over as show runner at the point where David Tennant became Matt Smith, his first season airing in 2010. Prior to this, he had written some of the best scripts since the reboot, including “The Empty Child” and “Blink”. Nevertheless, Moffat’s involvement with the show predates the reboot. In 1999, ten years before he became show runner, he wrote Doctor Who and the Curse of Fatal Death, a special for Comic Relief. This early foray into Doctor Who is incredibly revealing. It demonstrates Moffat’s deep affection for the show, his understanding of Doctor Who’s traditions, and his willingness to play with fans’ expectations by subverting the format.

The Smith and Capaldi years have not been without blemish. Moffat has been criticised for not hiring enough female writers, for struggling to write independent female characters, for heavy-handed dialogue, for pandering to feminists, for a dearth of two-part stories, for putting style ahead of substance, for being too self-referential, for overly complex plot lines, and even for some duff episodes.

The truth is, and while this is never said in public, Doctor Who fans admit it freely in private, the show has never been consistently good. Even Tom Baker, the show’s gold standard, had some dodgy episodes. The less said about “The Horns of Nimon” the better. The thing to remember is that when an episode leaves you cold, there’s a five-year-old somewhere enjoying every second, and in the case of “The Horns of Nimon”, that five-year-old was me.

Crucially, Moffat’s real strength is that he gets Doctor Who. Moffat’s Doctors, true to the essence of the show, have been deeply unconventional heroes. Tennant, an excellent Doctor – destined to be remembered as one of the real greats – occasionally slipped into conventional hero mode. Moffat’s Doctors never did. The Eleventh Doctor flitted from crisis to crisis, rarely in control of the situation, swinging between barely concealed panic and the misconception he was cool.

When Tennant put on a dinner jacket he could have been James Bond. When the Eleventh wore a dinner jacket to Amy and Rory’s wedding he was endearingly out of place. Similarly, when John Pertwee’s Doctor worked with UNIT in the seventies (or was it the eighties?) he was a plausible part of a human institution, with a desk, a title, even a parking space. Moffat’s Doctors, by contrast, are brilliant at saving planets, but rubbish at fitting in. They retain their alienness in exactly the way that the Doctor should.

At the same time, they are still heroes. When Doctor Who came back in 2005, it was quickly revealed that the Doctor had committed genocide not once but twice. Fans, somehow, and bafflingly with hindsight, took this in their stride. Moffat recognised that the Doctor is a fundamentally moral character and therefore could never commit such a crime. Ingeniously, he allowed the Doctor to end the Time War without firing a shot. Indeed, Moffat’s Doctors, even the War Doctor, never carry guns.

Moffat also deserved credit for exploring the possibilities at the heart of the show. Doctor Who has been a time travel show since its inception. Yet Moffat has made more of the narrative potential of time travel than any previous writer. River Song’s story was told out of sequence. And Season 6, from the Doctor’s point of view at least, begins at the end.

Running Doctor Who is the hardest job in television precisely because it has the potential to be the best show on television, and I say that in a world where Twin Peaks is back for a third season. For all the show’s accumulated history, it boils down to a “madman with a box”, who can travel anywhere in time and space. Moffat’s stories have taken full advantage of the show’s scope, placing dinosaurs in Victorian London, bringing back the Zygons and the Mondasian Cybermen, taking the British Empire to Mars, exploring alternative realities, and leaving the Doctor alone in a castle-cum-personal-hell for billions of years. He even, in the most audacious move since 1966, introduced a past incarnation of the Doctor previously unknown to fans.

As Moffat moves on, his career on the show comes full circle. His first Doctor Who script (for Comic Relief) ended with the Doctor regenerating as a woman, his last script will do the same. The show will, no doubt, continue to go from strength to strength. Fans, myself included, will forget Capaldi and become devoted to Whittaker. Moffat has made an indelible mark on the show, and his era will be remembered as a golden age. 

Dr Robin Bunce is a historian based at Homerton College, University of Cambridge. He specialises in the history of political thought, and also claims the unofficial title of Cambridge University's expert on the Daleks. His essay “A good man goes to war: the politics of the Peter Capaldi era”, will appear in Andrew O'Day's forthcoming collection of essays, “Doctor Who: Twelfth Night” published by I B Tauris

Photo: Getty
The Macron Con #2: Emmanuel's “feminism”
July 18th, 2017, 06:35 PM

Call him Manu, the “college bro” feminist.

This is the second in a series: “The Macron Con”, also called “Why Emmanuel Macron isn't a liberal hero”. Each week, I'll examine an area of the new French president's politics that doesn't quite live up to the hype. Read episode 1: Macron's unhealthy obsession with symbolism.

President Macron is a feminist. That's, at least, according to him. “I am a feminist,” he claimed on 2 December last year, then a presidential candidate, at the Women’s Forum for Economy and Society. He then added that to him, the “most important” thing was to be “a feminist recognised by women as such”. And women? Well, not all of them do – because while Macron’s vocal support of feminism as a cause is obviously important, his actions paint a more complex reality.

Days after his election, Macron declared he really wished his prime minister would be “a woman”. This was his choice entirely – the newly-elected President names the prime minister, who names their cabinet – and yet he picked a man, Edouard Philippe. “I never actually expected him to pick a woman,” says Fatima El Ouasdi, director of Politiqu’elles, a French non-profit fighting against sexism in politics. She says she never did because, when Macron discussed the PM’s nomination without mentioning names, “he said ‘he’ everytime”.

Feminists were similarly frustrated a month later, when several MPs from his party declared their support for a female Speaker. The party, En Marche!, having just won a parliamentary majority, the possibility of parliament electing France’s first female Speaker was entertained. Two women and a man from En Marche! ran. The man, François de Rugy, won. To El Ouasdi, it demonstrates a “lack of political will”. As she puts it: “It wasn’t a priority for the party, otherwise it would have been done.”

In theory, equality is Macron’s favourite hobbyhorse; but in practice, “we’re not there yet at all,” says El Ouasdi. His cabinet has been praised for its equality – it is composed of men and women in equal measure – but out of four of the most important ministries, only one, Defence, was given to a woman, Sylvie Goulard. When she left the cabinet in a reshuffle following trouble in her party MoDem, half the most important ministries (Justice and Defence) rightfully went to women. But to El Ouasdi, in the French government as well as in general politics, “quantitative equality isn’t the same as qualitative”.

That’s especially true in parliament, where 224 women were elected as MPs in May – the highest score ever, but still lower than their 353 male counterparts. Macron’s party proudly announced it was running with as many female candidates as male; but this has actually been the law since 1999.

The PR picture was perfect, though. During the campaign, when En Marche! called for candidate applications and received more from men than women, Macron took to social media to call for women to step up. The French feminist group Osez le Féminisme called it a “PR coup”: “He was essentially calling for women to apply the law,” said spokeswoman Claire Serre-Combe. “It’s nothing new.” Political parties in the past have often sent more female candidates to constituencies they expect to lose, so Macron’s only innovation was to send female candidates for winnable seats, which looks less like proactive feminism and more like not discriminating on the basis of gender.

Read more: The Macron Con #1: The French President's unhealthy obsession with symbolism

Macron has made many pledges for equality and has called women’s rights “an absolutely fundamental subject of our society’s vitality, economy, and of our democracy”. His vocal support shows a will to make feminism “a great national cause”, El Ouasdi says, but pledges have not all been kept. “He promised a ministry for women’s rights,” she says, “And in the end we got a state secretary for equality between men and women, which isn’t the same.”

These deceptive pledges may lie in Macron’s own vision of feminism. He has declared: “I believe in alterity [a philosophical concept of otherness], and true alterity for a man, is the woman. I am profoundly feminist because I love what is irreducible in the other that is woman.” Such a comment is “reductive” in its definition of women and “problematic” in its exclusion of LGBT+ people, El Ouasdi says.

Osez Le Féminisme has said in a press release that the group remains “vigilant and mobilised” against “liberal policies that aggravate casualisation of women’s lives.” Like most of Macron’s critics, French feminists worry that the president’s project will not help the working class. “It would be good if he were more concerned about poor female workers and housewives,” says El Ouasdi. She hopes the law will recognise women’s own difficult working conditions, for instance by adapting cleaners’ schedules to working hours.

Whether Macron will act on his pledges, including making “a great national cause” to fight violence against women, remains “to be seen”, El Ouasdi says. But it may be difficult, as the upcoming budget will see cuts in all ministries – with women’s refuges feared to be deprived of 25 per cent of their current subventions. State secretary for Equality Marlène Schiappa has called “fake news” on the numbers, but confirmed cuts will happen. “Where’s the great national cause, @EmmanuelMacron?” tweeted French feminist Caroline De Haas.

Macron can keep claiming he is a feminist. But as long as his unkept promises pile up, his feminism will resemble your college boyfriend’s – signs up for gender studies class, quite likes the concept, still ends up moaning about women’s rights activists being “too feminist”. Not cool, bro.

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“The absolute dogs in office skills”: why aren't millennials queuing up for this amazing job?
July 18th, 2017, 06:35 PM

Did no one teach you that the end of your studies is the beginning of your education?

The millenials (sic) have been at it again. The most disappointing generation in history has gone too far this time – not only do they dare complain about spending half their salary on paying someone else’s mortgage, having to pay for the education their elders got for free, or about the threat of incineration in the climate-changed hell world of tomorrow: now their ruddy ENTITLEMENT is getting in the way of the dreams of local theatre entrepreneurs.

According to a job advert (since pulled), Tea House Theatre, a small arts venue in a former strip club in south London, has spent three months generously offering millenials (sic) the chance to become an Office Administrator, and yet, mysteriously, they’ve not managed to fill the role. Instead of knuckling down for some serious filing, millenials (sic) are playing on their Nintendo Game Boys, saying “cowabunga”, doing sick tricks on their skateboards etc, and the Tea House Theatre is sick of it.

“Are you not taught anything about existing in the real world, where every penny counts. Did no one teach you that the end of your studies is the beginning of your education?” reads an actual real advert that someone typed into their computer while thinking “this is a good idea”, before going on to describe the huge amount of hard work they want you to do for as little as £15,000, in London, in the year two-thousand-and-seventeen.

“The absolute dogs in office skills, the ability to run a paper filing system as well as a computerised one, the ability to complete and keep track of a huge to-do list, to make our office work, create and develop business management systems that help the business to grow, giving space for more creative work to go ahead.” Is that all? You should be paying them!

Self-reflection is a tough business, but maybe, just maybe if every single millennial candidate you’ve seen during a three-month hiring process has disappointed you, maybe the problem isn’t with them. Maybe you’ve set yourself unrealistic expectations about how much office-based “bang” your limited salary-based “buck” is going to attract. Or maybe you can’t get anyone to work for you because you are an absolute nightmare who couldn’t even stop yourself flipping out when typing a job advert.

It would be unfair to speculate which of these is true, but one Twitter user claimed that when they replied to a less “excitable” version of the ad, the interviewer for the position “was eating breakfast”, “emphasised that he would shout at me a lot”, referred to her as a “diversity hire”, and wanted candidates to complete two to three days of unpaid trial work. Still, probably just one of those vile online trolls we read so much about these days.

Artsjobs.org.uk, which hosted the ad, has since removed it – hilariously, by “generously” targeting millennials with this “appealing” opportunity, the venue actually breached a rule about advertising to specific age groups. After all, they could have just hired “one old lady” with an “IBM computer” – like the one who used to run a drama school single-handedly, according to a definitely relevant and not exaggerated anecdote that’s in the middle of a job advert for some reason? They used to send children up chimneys, you know, aren’t policeman getting younger, bring back National Service.

Ideally, this whole thing will turn out to have been viral marketing for a bold new show about intergenerational relations, but on the off-chance that it is real...

Dear the Tea House Theatre,

As a professional millenial who sometimes works in the arts industry, I am sad to report that I *was* only ever taught to exist in the cyber world, where we don’t have pennies, because of bitcoins and such. I *didn’t* know that the end of my studies was the beginning of my education: I guess I was too busy catching Pokemons :(. Please can I have a job so I can pay for more apps?

Not sure about creating and developing business management systems, but I can do two fidget spinners at once. Also I didn’t even need the funny paperclip to help me type this letter and my mum says I am so good at the internet. (What’s an “IBM” computer LOL?)

Looking forward to impressing you.

Cowabunga,

EH Jefferson

Professional Millenial

Photo: Getty
“What are you?” John Humphrys grills Johanna Konta about her nationality for no reason
July 18th, 2017, 06:35 PM

Unnecessarily aggressive interview shock.

On 10 July, women’s singles star Johanna Konta became the first British woman to reach the Wimbledon semi-finals since the Seventies. The crowd on Henman Hill were in such raptures that it was nicknamed “Konta Contour” and “Konta Kop”. They cheered her on from under umbrellas in the pouring rain, as she beat Simona Halep to a historic victory.

Does anything make you feel more British than a home player winning against the odds on a wet Monday afternoon? Well, there is one thing. A grumpy old white man and mouthpiece of the establishment turning the whole joyous event into a racism row of course! Dear old Blighty.

The BBC’s irate-dinosaur-in-chief John Humphrys outraged listeners by grilling Konta about her nationality on the Radio 4 Today programme, where he has an off-putting line in unnecessarily aggressive interviews.

Audio: Telegraph

Unable to grasp that someone who wasn’t born in the UK could possibly be – splutter – British, he thundered:

“We talk about you as being British but you were born in Hungary, Australian citizenship, and I seem to remember that the Australian High Commissioner when you won the quarter-final said ‘Great to see an Aussie win’ and we were saying ‘Great to see a Brit win’ – so what are you?”

Konta graciously handled the interview-turned-border control interrogation by giving a dismissive laugh and informing Humphrys that she wasn’t born in Hungary, and has lived in Britain half her life, representing it in both tennis tournaments and the Olympics for years.

“I’m definitely a British athlete,” she concluded. As if she needed to.

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I never thought I wanted a female Doctor Who – until I got one
July 18th, 2017, 06:35 PM

Chi Onwurah on her love of the Time Lord – and why she's excited about the new one. 

You never forget your first. While others may have since risen higher in my affections  – Star Trek, 2001: A Space Odyssey, even, if  only for a short time, Blake’s 7Doctor Who was my first love in science fiction, and science fiction my first love on screen.

It was the first joke I could remember the punchline to:

Knock, knock!

Who’s there?

Doctor.

Doctor Who?

That’s right.

I must have been about eight or nine and I’d already been terrified out of my young mind by the mutant maggots of Doctor Who and the Green Death.

Still I did not think the gender of Doctor Who mattered so much. Perhaps because, while Tom Baker is definitely my favourite Doctor, (David Tennant a strong second), all of them, from William Hartnell to Peter Capaldi brought something magical to the part. There was so much variety in the men who played him, would it make that much difference if he was a she?

Of course I wanted to push the boundaries of the roles woman actors could play but I saw little connection between that and my long-standing campaign to attract more girls and women into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (Stem). An engineer for 20 years before coming into parliament, ending the entrenched gender disparity in Stem disciplines – only 9 per cent of professional engineers are women – has long been a personal priority. Not only as a matter of social justice, but to give our economy better access to the skills it so desperately needs and make tech more balanced, more humane, more representative.

I’m now the shadow minister for industrial strategy, science and innovation, and daily it is brought home to me that excluding half our population from the jobs of the future is an economic as well as a social dead end.

I’ve long said women in Stem need high profile role models, and therefore championed everything from the most influential Women in Tech list to International Women in Engineering Day

Almost exactly one year ago Jeremy Corbyn and I invited 100 female engineers into his office for what was a fantastic celebration of the contribution women have already made to engineering.

And I have always argued that better media representation of women in Stem could make a huge difference, and even called for a TV series about a complex, flawed but ultimately engaging woman engineer. But it did not occur to me that a woman starring in Doctor Who could have a role to play in inspiring girls. After all, the Doctor is a fictional, multi millennia-aged, two hearted, regenerating, time-travelling alien. Would a woman Doctor really be an easy-to-identify-with role model?

Having seen the 55-second trailer for the new Doctor Who and been unable to prevent myself breaking into a huge smile as Jodie Whittaker was revealed, I now know the answer is, unequivocally, yes.

We do not yet know what kind of Doctor Jodie will be, the exact mix of intelligence, humour, superiority and compassion. But we do know she will have ownership in four dimensions of an awful lot of complex technology – including a Tardis , which unlike Philip Hammond’s trains, has often proved itself too difficult for male Doctors to drive.

Even if I had not been personally inspired by the new Doctor, the blatant sexism and more subtle misogyny of so much of the negative reaction would have convinced me that it mattered. So really, there are people out there who find being a woman the least believable part of the Doctor’s story?   Whose lives will be materially worse if the fictional, multi millennia-aged, two-hearted, regenerating, time-travelling alien is not male? I’ve spent decades adoring 12 male Time Lords and they can’t bring themselves to even tolerate one female one? It reminded me of some of the response to John Boyega’s black Stormtrooper in the Star Wars galaxy a long time ago and far, far away. When fictional diversity brings on a major mind malfunction then you probably had a problem to begin with.

So now I am left hoping that Doctor Who's Jodie Whittaker will slay a few sexist demons in her improbable journeys, as well as altering the dynamics around diversity in Stem. With a woman Doctor, literally, anything is possible.

Photo: Getty
Martin Landau on Alfred Hitchcock, Woody Allen and how not to be a bad actor
July 18th, 2017, 06:35 PM

He turned down the role of Spock, and turned James Mason into a bisexual. An encounter with the late Hollywood great and Oscar-winning star of Ed Wood.

I interviewed Martin Landau, the genial, generous actor who has died aged 89, back in 2000. He was 72 then and nowhere near running out of steam. His agent had advised me to place all my most important questions up front. “Martin likes to give elaborate answers,” she said affectionately. In fact, during the afternoon that I spent with Landau at his office on Sunset Boulevard, I didn’t actually get the opportunity to put many questions to him at all. Conversation for him was one delightful, never-ending after-dinner speech.

But then he had one of the more interesting careers in Hollywood. Not just because of the lives which intersected with his – yes, he dated Marilyn Monroe and was chums with James Dean – but because he still had so much to impart about acting technique.

It was not as if he had it in his bones. He was employed as a cartoonist on the New York Daily News at the age of 17, but later strayed toward acting, and in 1955 earned a place at the Actors’ Studio, one of only two to make it out of 1,000 hopefuls. (The other was Steve McQueen.)

In Landau’s case, there may have been some overlap between the professions of cartoonist and actor. As we talked, he proved himself to be a master mimic and caricaturist, slipping between accents and dialects – from Hungarian to Cockney to prim, crusted, John Mills English – like someone switching queues at the supermarket. “I’m like a parrot,” he told me. “I can’t help it.”

He did a mean Hitchcock too. The director had handpicked Landau for North By Northwest (1959) after catching him on Broadway. “Martin,” spluttered Hitchcock, “you have a circus going on inside you.” The role was Leonard, James Mason’s sinister right-hand man. Landau’s performance is all eyes. “Oh yes,” he agreed, “the eyes were everything. He only moved when he had to.”

His distinctive take on the part was well-known. “If you read the script of North By Northwest, you’ll see it’s not a huge role. But I decided to play him as a homosexual, very subtly, because otherwise he would have been just a henchman. He wasn’t a bad guy; he was just trying to keep a relationship alive by getting rid of the woman who had usurped him. I realised that all of this would make him very dangerous. It made his grievance personal. The only person who didn’t like this was James Mason because it cast aspersions on his character; it basically turned him into a bisexual.”

For a long time after that, the parts didn’t stop coming. There was a lot of television. He was Gene Roddenberry’s first choice for Spock in Star Trek, but turned it down. “I respond to the duplicity in characters,” he explained, “and there was nothing to play there.”

But he did Mission: Impossible (1966-69), in which there was little else but duplicity, and later the very sweet Space: 1999 (1975-77), with its alabaster sets and alabaster optimism. He found himself appearing in barmy historical epics like Cleopatra (1963) and The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965).

John Cleese cornered Landau in a disco in the early 1970s. “You’re fucking everywhere, Landau!,” he boomed. Cleese had been researching the genre in preparation for Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and had been apparently unable to find a movie that Landau wasn’t in.

The salad days wilted eventually. In fact, there is a period of 15 years that is best left entirely unmentioned (a period that included parts in The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island and The Return of the Six Million Dollar Man and the Bionic Woman). Then suddenly Landau couldn’t walk down the street without a brilliant script falling into his hands – Francis Ford Coppola’s Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988) preceded an aching, Oscar-winning turn as Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood (1995). (Both films cast him as flawed mentors to idealistic younger men.) In between those two came what remains his most complex and disturbing performance, as a pampered, complacent ophthalmologist who has his lover killed in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanours (1990).

“When I met with Woody, I almost talked myself out of that role. He told me: ‘In days gone by, I would’ve cast Edward G Robinson in this part.’ I said, ‘But that’s just wrong. Your protagonist is a liar, a cheat, a spoiled brat, a coward, an embezzler, and a murderer. He doesn’t do a single redeeming thing. Whoever plays this, you need the audience to empathise, sympathise, see themselves in him, and be horrified all at same time. Or you don’t have a movie.’ It went very quiet for longer than I like it to be. He said ‘What time’s your plane?’ I said, ‘9am’. He said, ‘Can you make it four? I want to get you fitted for your costume.’”

The performance itself was another masterpiece of economy; Landau kept everything about this terrifying character stifled, bottled up, buried. “Dialogue is what people are willing to share,” he said. “The 90 per cent that’s left – well, that’s what I do for a living. It’s about concealment. Bad actors try to cry. Good actors try not to. Drunks don’t try to be drunk, they try to be sober. Sometimes I’ll watch a drunk reaching for his glass, and it’s the most studied reach in the world.”

The resurrection of Landau’s career was guaranteed by Tucker, Crimes and Misdemeanours and Ed Wood but there was no sense as he spoke that he was wallowing in his achievements. He gave the impression of still being grateful to be back in the business that he cherished. It was an honour to meet him.

Photo: Paramount Pictures
Will feuding Tories try to unseat Theresa May over the summer recess?
July 18th, 2017, 06:35 PM

This week might be remembered as the last time the Prime Minister had any real power at all.

“A change of nuisances,” David Lloyd George once remarked, “is as good as a vacation.” That's an opinion you're unlikely to hear echoed in Downing Street now, where the healing powers of the summer recess have become almost an article of faith. Everything will be better once parliament rises and everyone's had a break, or at least, that's how the theory runs.

But a change of nuisance might turn out to be more restorative to Theresa May's position than any mountain walk. I wrote yesterday that the most important Tory story was that the 1922 Committee was urging the PM to put a bit of stick about and sack ministers who rock the boat. The hostility towards the leakers has only grown over the last 24 hours, and forms the basis of today's Times splash: “May urged to sack her 'donkey' ministers” is the headline. One MP quoted in the Times rails against the “safe seat kids” who are able to plot away, safe in the knowledge that any voter revolt won't hit them in their constituencies.

One reason parties in power tend to stay there is that MPs in marginal seats often act as a ballast – both in backing up their leaders in punishing those who rock the boat, and in providing a connection to swing voters. One of the reasons David Cameron belatedly decided to sack Maria Miller – remember her? – was as a result of entreaties from the 2010 and 2015 intake.

Don't forget that the bulk of the Conservative parliamentary party won their seats from Labour or the Liberal Democrats, rather than via succession. That's one reason why May, who was too weak to sack ministers on 9 June, could get away with one or two choice dismissals if they are chosen well.

(The other reason – as well as to put an end to the damaging leaks – that some Tory MPs are keen on a few sackings is that they are unimpressed by the possible post-May options on offer, and hope that the new blood might be more dynamic and attractive than the current roster.)  

But the difficulty is that while the majority of Conservative MPs are nervously looking over their shoulders at Labour or the Liberal Democrats, not all of them are. Today's Guardian reports that some Tory MPs are still planning to try to unseat May over the summer.

Her guarantors in marginal seats are, for the moment, shoring up her position. If they spend the summer getting an earful from their constituents about Tory infighting, that probably strengthens May to carry out an autumn reshuffle. If they spend their summer hearing about their PM's unpopularity, however, this week might be remembered as the last time May had any real power at all. 

Photo: Getty
My laptop’s memory is full and its functions impaired – I know how it feels
July 18th, 2017, 06:35 PM

I mean, seriously, what is the point? 

My laptop has developed a new and mildly annoying tendency. Every ten minutes or so, up pops a box saying it is very low on memory and it needs to delete some temporary files. “Knock yourself out,” I say aloud, and click the button indicating assent.

It then says words to the effect of: “I’ve done it but frankly there’s still so little memory left that we are going to have to go through this whole tiresome business again, sooner rather than later.”

And so the long day goes on. Every so often things get so bad that it says it doesn’t even have enough space to save what I’m working on, ie the “Down and Out” column for the New Statesman. (It’s just done that now.) Then I do something too boring to tell you, which solves the problem for a bit, but this time, later rather than sooner, ça recommence à zéro.

I’ve worked out what’s going on. There’s no pornography or other video stored on this machine, so it’s not like moving images are taking up space. It’s simply that the Lenovo has acquired too many memories. And, believe me,  I know how it feels. One of the side-effects of expulsion from the family home has been a sudden and sustained accretion of experience: all sorts of things have happened to me that would never have happened otherwise. This is to be welcomed, although the price has been heavy. And the problem is that once a certain amount of space has been filled up, the operation of everyday functions becomes harder. Gosh, this analogy is working rather well, isn’t it?

Let us take the matter of what we shall loosely call romance. Over the past ten years I have had relations of a sexual as well as emotional nature with – well, I had better not say how many women. It would give the wrong impression. But three of these relationships have been serious, and two of them broke my heart. That’s twice more than you want your heart broken, let me tell you. However, for the past year, as those who have been paying attention to this column will be able to confirm, nada. Bupkas.

Or nothing much beyond a sort of tentative fluttering of the heart, or the excitement when a reader popped up for immoral purposes. She has since gone back to her doomed and toxic romance with a man even older than me, who first made his name with a comedy song in the late 1970s, and if I told you the name of that song, you would see the irony of the situation at once and laugh so long and hard you’d probably have to be thumped on the back to stop yourself from choking.

And then there is a sort of system crash – I’m not talking about impotence, by the way – and I find I have to delete some memory before I can resume. Only you can’t delete your own memories, which is why the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind had such an intriguing premise. I can no longer think of X without thinking of A, B, and C – and there are enough memories, and those potent enough, of A, B and C to seriously gum up the works when it comes to X.

And here the analogy breaks down, because in the case of my laptop I can always call my great friend Toby and get him to come round and remove some of the sludge from my computer. I cannot get him to do the same to my memory. Which is why I spend my days sitting alone in the Hovel, avoiding human contact, and waiting for my own system to crash irreparably. My central processing unit has had enough, and the prospects are bleak enough as it is.

My friend S— has recently been vexed by the fact that due to an organisational cock-up, she cannot attend this year’s Oxford gaudy at her old college. It is pronounced “gowdy” and means “reunion”.

The college I attended has a similar institution and although they tried to keep it from me, my spies reported it back to me. In the end I decided not to attend on the grounds that a) I no longer have any success about which to boast, b) I’m not going to rent a sodding dinner jacket and the rest, and c) the last thing I want to do is reawaken any old memories of the place, especially considering that one of the women named above (A, B, or C) also lived in that town, and going up there again would be more than I can take. The memory banks would burst, drowning everything.

Meanwhile the summer progresses; the nights have already started drawing in. And what is the point of a summer without having someone to share it with? I mean, seriously, what is the point? 

Photo: Getty
17 reasons why Taylor Swift would be smuggled out of her apartment in a huge suitcase
July 18th, 2017, 06:35 PM

The cradle rocks above an abyss.

Last night, reports emerged from a photo agency called Splash News that Taylor Swift was being smuggled in and out of her own apartment in a giant black suitcase supported by two broad-shouldered men. A picture of the men lifting the suitcase was captioned: “Taylor Swift being transported in a huge suitcase from her Tribeca apartment into her truck, in the trunk.”

Screams of delight were immediately heard the world over, because this is the logical conclusion of every Taylor Swift tabloid story to date. Yet the agency has since gone back on its claims. “I literally just put the phone down from someone on Taylor’s camp,” a Splash representative, who did not want to be identified, told Spin. “We’re having to actually retract that.”

So the story has been retracted. But that doesn’t stop me from wondering why. Why this story exists. Why my life is so hard and painful. Why, if (purely hypothetically) Taylor Swift were being smuggled out of her home in a suitcase, she was, you know, being smuggled out of her home in a suitcase? Here are 17 speculative reasons why:

1. To get to the other side.

2. The suitcase is a metaphor for the claustrophobia of fame, and the impossibility of privacy in the digital age.

3. The suitcase is a thought experiment devised by Austrian scientist Erwin Schrödinger in 1935.

4. The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.

5. I will die if there is no more Entertainment News.

6. Do you remember that scene from the 2002 film Scooby Doo, where Scooby hides from a monster in a suitcase, is discovered, mutters “R-I’m a suitcrase, R-I’m a suitcrase”, panics, gives the monster a manicure with his teeth, outruns the monster on a bar countertop, wheels the Mystery, Inc. gang on a luggage cart through a glass window, and falls several feet to the ground? This is like that, except Taylor Swift is inside the suitcase.

7. “I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf. “And so do all who live to see such times.”

8. It’s not so much a question of volume as a question of the angles a 5’10” 27-year-old woman would have to accommodate herself to.

9. This is a case for the F.B.I.

10. Do you ever find yourself, utterly alone, letting out a wild, involuntary laugh?

11. The thing is, it’s really hard to be roommates with people if your suitcases are much better than theirs - if yours are really good ones and theirs aren’t. You think if they’re intelligent and all, the other person, and have a good sense of humor, that they don’t give a damn whose suitcases are better, but they do.

12. The suitcase would very much like to be excluded from this narrative, one that it has never asked to be part of, since 2009.

13. The undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveller returns, puzzles the will.

14. It is with a heavy heart that I must announce that the celebs are at it again.

15. What you are looking at is not a suitcase, but a highly-developed exoskeleton, formed over many months of bitter isolation.

16. In a Geiger counter, there is a tiny bit of radioactive substance, so small, that perhaps in the course of the hour one of the atoms decays, but also, with equal probability, perhaps none.

17. I never think about death.

Spin, Spin1038, Splash News
Phil Wang on engineering comedy, Footlights, and why Brexit is a cock block
July 18th, 2017, 06:35 PM

“There isn’t a shortage of Asian engineers. There is a shortage of Asian comedians.”

Phil Wang loves to introduce himself. According to his Live at the Apollo routine, it’s his favourite thing to do. “I love introducing myself,” he says, “it’s my favourite thing to do. Every time I meet a new person – a new person, as in a stranger not a baby – I tell them my name. I don’t tell babies my name. Babies don’t care. Babies are rude.”

When I meet Wang in a central London pub, however, he confesses that while he does enjoy it, there are many things he prefers doing to introducing himself. I’m not shocked, just disappointed that he lied.

But we don’t dwell on that. The 27 year old, in the midst of previewing his new show Kinabalu for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe next month, has been set on a career in comedy from an early age. “Which is why I chose to do an engineering degree,” he quips.

“No, seriously, I’ve found engineering very helpful," he continues. "People don’t see the parallels, but comedy and science are both about structure and discipline. They’re both about pattern spotting, seeing what works and making predictions based on a previous experience. I might lack the cultural reference points of an English graduate, for example, but I think the fundamental mechanics of comedy and engineering are actually pretty similar.”

Is that how you got the Asian side of your family on board with your choice of career? Wang laughs awkwardly before making a serious point. “I think cultural background is important to take into account when we talk about career decisions. It doesn’t take much of a leap to suggest that entertainment is a much less accepted line of work in a lot of traditional Asian families. I’m lucky in the sense that my mother is English and my father is from a pretty liberal Chinese-Malaysian family. I think that my studying engineering probably satisfies a stereotype – and I did enjoy it – but let’s put it this way: there isn’t a shortage of Asian engineers. There is a shortage of Asian comedians.”

While studying at Cambridge, Wang served as president of the prestigious theatrical club Footlights, which can count among its alumni Douglas Adams, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Eric Idle and former shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt – “Yeah, he is quite funny to be fair.” Is being in the Footlights necessarily a prelude to comedic success? Wang takes a swig of his pint and shakes his head. “Sorry, I think I’ve spilt quite bit there. No, I wouldn’t say it’s a guarantee. There are plenty of success stories, but there are others who either didn’t make it or chose not to pursue it. You’ve got a balance between careerists and hobbyists. For some people it starts off as a hobby and becomes a career. Admittedly though, for me, I went to Cambridge to be in the Footlights.”

Since its formation in 1883, the Footlights has only had a handful of non-white presidents, of which Wang and Richard Ayoade are among the best known. Why do you think that is? “In fairness, for a long time Cambridge didn’t have more than a handful of non-white students. I think the university is only just starting to address its diversity problem in a big way; it’ll take time before we see that in every aspect of the student experience. The cultural barriers from the black and minority ethnic side also play a part, of course.”

Is Footlights exclusive? Wang appears torn. “There are various tiers of involvement. It’s not like comedy’s Bullingdon Club or anything. It can at least claim to be meritocratic in principle. With the Footlights, you turn up and in the first term you do this thing called the Virgin Smoker. That’s a show open to anyone at the university. You sort of become a satellite relation to the inner club, which is run by a committee. Once you’ve performed as an independent for a while, every year there are two points where you can apply to join the committee proper. You send in an application and you make your case as to why you’re dedicated. It’s inclusive in that anyone can try, but exclusive in that not everyone will get in.”

While Wang concedes that “benefits of a Cambridge comedy education are pretty unique”, he is convinced that the industry is becoming more accessible “and that’s definitely a good thing". He credits the internet for giving comics a platform that didn’t exist in the past and adds: “I think the rise of stand-up in Britain has been really significant online. You can just plug away at it from your own home. In the past to do something like sketch or radio, there were a lot of barriers to just getting into the studio in the first place. There were a lot more relationships you had to form and past wisdoms you had to be aware of. I don’t think that stand-up is hamstrung by the same problems now.”

Although plenty of Wang’s material coheres around his race and ethnicity, he rejects the charge that he makes light of them and insists he intends to educate as much he entertains. Racism, Wang stresses, finds its roots in ignorance. “I think it’s important to make sure that an audience knows what they’re being told and sold. So for me funny comes first, but secondly I’m looking to make the show worthwhile in a social or educational sense. I don’t like the idea that we shouldn’t talk about race or where we’re from or what we are.”

For a comedian so concerned about race, Wang is surprisingly sparing in mentioning Brexit in his material. Another swig, which he looks like he needs, precedes the explanation as to why. “I’m more divided along Brexit lines than I am along Tory-Labour lines. Brexit forms a part of my show, but only insofar as that I think it’s an attack against globalisation. That’s why I hate it. I’d consider myself a globalist and my family background is what informs that. I’m mixed-race so I can’t really understand why someone would want to be closed off or isolationist. The history of human progress has been about gradually increasing the size and definition of communities. So now that we are moving towards a bigger, global community, we need to be looking at big, global issues collectively. Anything that pulls away from that, I just can’t get behind.”

Wang, who is in a happy relationship with a white woman, is a passionate supporter of diversifying gene pools. Kinabalu, he tells me, is about celebrating sex and race. “These are the only two things I’ve ever been interested in consistently. Brexit is ultimately a political and cultural cock block. Like all cock blocks, it must be stopped.” 

Identifying as a “cautious patriot”, Wang says that recent times have made it harder for him to feel proud of Britain, but he recognises that the country, even in its current state, offers a whole host of privileges unavailable elsewhere. “I’m the kind of patriot that only an immigrant can be. Only someone who has experienced what you can lose by living elsewhere can appreciate this country in this way. You can have a high quality of life in many Asian countries, for example, but you won’t have the same freedoms you have here. Look at horror films – a completely first world privilege. You don’t see someone in Syria paying money to be scared.”

Wang finishes a craft beer I’ve never heard of. What’s the long-term aim, then? Where do you go from here? “I would like east Asians to become better represented in the UK,” he says pointedly, “that’s my goal. People ultimately want to see something of themselves in everything they watch. At the moment, I don’t think east Asian people really have that. I want that to change.”

Phil Wang performs Kinabalu at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe at the Pleasance Beneath ahead of a nationwide tour. More information and tickets are available at www.philwang.co.uk

 

Phil Wang
Ocean Vuong's poetry brims with precise, surreal and erotic imagery
July 18th, 2017, 06:35 PM

Paul Batchelor reviews his Night Sky with Exit Wounds, plus new works from Adam O’Riordan and Colette Bryce.

Not yet 30 years old, Ocean Vuong has already won several major awards in the US for his debut collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds. It’s easy to see why. From its opening lines (“In the body, where everything has a price, / I was a beggar”), the book brims with precise, surreal, erotic imagery: “The dress / petaling off him like the skin / of an apple.” Vuong authoritatively lays claim to a range of symbols and tropes: hands and guns; words and stars; bodies kneeling and falling; petals and clothes or skin. None of these images and associations is unfamiliar, but we see them afresh – as one poem puts it: “Look, my eyes are not / your eyes.”

This is primarily because Vuong possesses a large and unusual imagination, but the road he has taken to poetry is also a factor: he was born in Vietnam and emigrated to the US after a spell in a refugee camp; he is also gay. Being a Trump-voter’s worst nightmare seems to have provided him with a unique and often comic perspective on Western language and life:

A pillaged village is a fine example of perfect rhyme. He said that.
He was white. Or maybe, I was just beside myself, next to him.
Either way, I forgot his name by heart.

Inevitably, given its ambition, this is an uneven collection. Some poems are overwhelmed by their subjects (in particular a mawkish poem about 9/11), and Vuong sometimes falls short in his reach for the grand Rilkean note. In “Into the Breach” the speaker asks: “But what if I broke through / the skin’s thin page / anyway / & found the heart / not the size of a fist / but your mouth opening / to the width of Jerusalem. What then?’’ To which the reader can only say, well, what then indeed?

But these lines are immediately followed by a more subtly ambiguous observation: “To love another / man – is to leave / no one behind / to forgive me. / I want to leave / no one behind.” Night Sky with Exit Wounds is a remarkable debut. Where Vuong is headed is anyone’s guess, but you’ll want to go with him.

In unhappy contrast, A Herring Famine, Adam O’Riordan’s second book of poems, illustrates much of what is wrong with poetry in the UK. These poems are both unethical and boring, sadistic and genteel, unambitious and yet pretentious. Almost every one of them has been occasioned by a stranger’s suffering and/or death.

Like a ghoulish Forrest Gump, O’Riordan always seems to pop up in the right place at the right time to appropriate the misery. Farm labourers, rioting prisoners, starving heroin addicts, W B Yeats – all owe God a death and Adam a poem. Take, for example, “Catalunya”, a three-part poem: the first part is about a random murder; the second is about getting some trim on holiday; the third is about staring moodily at the sea. How do the parts “speak” to one another? They don’t. Or there’s “Inner Harbor”, a poem that begins by telling us how Baltimore has had “two hundred / recent murders”, and then recounts some of the grislier details, before settling down to its actual subject: a dinner date with Andrew Motion.

All of these deaths, and the many more in this book, are invoked for no other reason than to make the poet’s dreary self-fascination seem significant. Line-breaks are often arbitrary, poems fall in and out of rhythm, and the syntax is repetitive, overusing the “x of y” construction as a shortcut to sounding poetic: “a smur of butter”, “the hutch-stink of the soul’’, “the tender vellum / of his hand”. It’s dire.

Colette Bryce’s Selected Poems assembles a body of work distinguished by the subtle, haunting music of its lilting yet short-breathed lines. “A Spider” begins: “I trapped a spider in a glass, / a fine-blown wine glass…” Characteristically, Bryce gives each syllable its due, sensitising the reader’s ear. The poem ends:

I meant to let it go
but still he taps against the glass
all Marcel Marceau
in the wall that is there and not there,
a circumstance I know.

Whether it is drawn from Bryce’s experience of being a gay female poet, or of living in Britain having been raised a Northern Irish Catholic, the poem’s allegorical charge lies not so much in its content as in the way it compels the reader to vocalise the mixture of hesitancy and inevitability by which it proceeds.

Never showy, always watchful, Bryce’s poems return to the parts of personal and political life that hurt. Her most recent work returns insistently to her childhood in Derry, with the checkpoint manned by “a teenager / drowned in a uniform, cumbered with a gun”, and soldiers searching the family home, “filling our rooms like news of a tragedy”. In “Heritance” she claims one of her characteristics as “Tact, to a point”. It’s a quality that has served her poetry better than it has served her career. Bryce’s excellence is hardly a secret, but as she enters mid-career, she is yet to receive her due. Her Selected Poems should help to rectify this. 

Night Sky with Exit Wounds
Ocean Vuong
Jonathan Cape, 79pp, £10

A Herring Famine
Adam O’Riordan
Chatto & Windus, 72pp, £10

Selected Poems
Colette Bryce
Picador, 117pp, £14.99

Photo: GERRY BRAKUS
Is 2017 the year politicians finally notice homelessness?
July 18th, 2017, 06:35 PM

The 2017 manifestos were in sharp contrast to those of the 2015 election. 

In the last seven years, the number of people sleeping rough on the streets of Britain has more than doubled, according to official figures. These numbers are still on the rise, up 16 per cent in the last year. Behind this statistic lie thousands more in shelters and temporary accommodation, with Shelter calculating almost 255,000 people have no permanent home.

In 2017, politicians are finally taking notice. The Homelessness Reduction Act, a private members’ bill proposed by Conservative backbencher Bob Blackman in early 2017, gave local authorities new duties to help secure accommodation and support for people threatened with homelessness regardless of whether they were judged “priority need”. Blackman called the legislation "long overdue". Importantly, it came with an increase in central government funding of £61m after, in Blackman’s words, “quite a battle with government”.

Many questions remain about the levels of funding. Manchester councillor Beth Knowles called the government contribution “great, but it’s not enough”, as it fell far below the estimates of cost put out by Shelter and others. Yet the consensus across parties and social action groups seems to be that the Act is a welcome first step, and the first sign that the government has noticed again the problem of homelessness.

The Act was swiftly followed by a snap general election. Rather than spending months lobbying political parties ahead of the manifesto launches, advocates for relieving homelessness only had a short spell to translate their many “asks” into definite policies.

They rose to the challenge. The Labour manifesto committed to ending rough sleeping completely within the next parliament, by stopping cuts to hostels and housing benefit and earmarking 4,000 additional homes for people with a history of rough sleeping. Labour’s shadow housing secretary John Healey said: “There’s a powerful sense of outrage within Labour at the rapidly rising level of rough sleeping,” which was in turn "the visible, leading, shameful edge of housing policy failure across the board”.

The Conservative manifesto, meanwhile, promised to halve the levels of rough sleeping by 2022 (i.e. reduce it to the level it was when they took office), and support a Housing First model of homelessness prevention, modelled off of the system in Finland, which provides for rapid rehousing of homeless people in stable accommodation rather than moving them through a series of shelters and transitional housing programmes.

This cross-party ambition has been welcomed by social action groups. Stephen Robertson, CEO of the Big Issue Foundation, praised MPs for a "humanity and dignity" that "comes before your politics".  

These manifestos are in sharp contrast to those of the 2015 election. Rough sleeping had already risen dramatically, yet mentions of homelessness at all came few and far between. The only commitment given in 2015 by a major party was in Labour’s manifesto, with a commitment to “reversing this trend” [of rough sleeping]. It was a far cry from abolishing it completely.

The difference between 2015 and 2017 goes deeper than national manifesto commitments. Robertson points to some local authorities recently acting on a larger scale to provide housing for homeless people, in contrast to “12, 18 months ago when loads of organisations were just putting spikes down to stop [rough sleepers] being near their organisation”. Blackman agrees that “between 2010 and 2015 the attitude was less sympathetic to homeless people than it is now. I don't think there's any doubt about that".

What changed? For the manifestos specifically, Jacqui McCluskey, director of policy and communications at Homeless Link, points to the effect of joint lobbying by social action groups in the lead-up to the 2017 election. Rather than lobby individually for different policies on homelessness, she says, organisations concentrated on pushing for a manifesto commitment on ending rough sleeping. This collective targeting of a single goal was evidently a successful strategy.

More broadly, there seems to have been a change in the political winds (perhaps a shift in the Overton Window). Within the Labour Party, the Campaign to End Homelessness was founded in 2015. According to the chair, Sam Stopp: “A home is a basic right in the same way that having access to healthcare free at the point of use is a basic right.” More recently, Andy Burnham was elected as Manchester mayor on a platform of ending rough sleeping by 2020, with a strategy which included donating part of his salary to the cause

Homelessness may also be another facet of British life to be touched by the "Corbyn effect". Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, the MP for the London constituency of Islington North, has long campaigned for affordable housing. Stopp, who didn’t support Jeremy Corbyn in either leadership contest, acknowledged rough sleeping was an issue "that had probably fallen off the agenda for a bit, so I'd have to credit Corbyn to a pretty large degree, really, for raising the issue in the consciousness.” Labour’s gains during the election were often strongest in urban areas in southern England (which also have most of the highest per capita rates of rough sleeping).

Within the Conservatives, shifts were also apparent. Theresa May has adopted a different approach to her predecessor. While during David Cameron’s term in office, “the Prime Minister of the day and Number 10 weren’t exactly falling over themselves to support it”, according to Blackman, this changed “with the advent of a new Prime Minister, and a new regime, that was far more positive to the concept and in fact the detail.”

Whatever the reasons behind it, homelessness appears to have returned to the political agenda. Fears remain about whether promises will be carried through, especially given the absence of homelessness in the Queen’s Speech. While politicians are recognising it as a political issue, there are fears that it won’t be enough.

Recently, the Grenfell Tower fire has demonstrated that giving people a roof over their heads doesn’t guarantee safety or quality of life. Joe Beswick from the Radical Housing Network says that “homes are increasingly becoming assets, rather than places to live”, leading to enormous housing inequality. This is not a fact that is unrecognised by all political actors. Corbyn himself, as a backbencher, warned in a parliamentary debate in 1993 against measures “introduced not out of any deep concern for the problems of London's homeless” but only intended “to get them out of sight and out of mind.” Politicians from all parties must be wary of repeating this.

As Stopp puts it, “when you’re talking about ending homelessness, you’re really talking about the causes of inequality.” Challenging this is a far more ambitious undertaking.

Getty
Why are writers burying stories in a forest in Norway?
July 18th, 2017, 06:35 PM

Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell and more take part in the Future Library project.

The Oslo metro glides out of the subterranean vaults of the city, and in the space of a few short minutes, we have climbed up through a dense forest and are looking down on a shimmering fjord. From this vantage point, it is possible to imagine a time before humans, or even a time after us. How will our as yet non-existent descendants remember today? Which stories will survive us? And who, or what, will read them?

These are the questions that have brought me to Norway to witness the Future Library, which was launched in 2014. Over the course of a century, the project is inviting one author each year to write a manuscript to be sealed away, only to be shared with the world in 2114.

The Future Library was conceived by the Scottish artist Katie Paterson. It asks us to place our faith in the most human of acts: the creation of rituals, traditions and stories that transcend us. In asking us to sacrifice our readerly curiosity, the project highlights a capacity to look beyond self-interest. It also asks some of our most celebrated authors to fast-forward to a potentially less receptive future and question what of their creations will retain a universal resonance.

Margaret Atwood was the first to take the plunge through time with Scribbler Moon (the only piece of text that has been revealed is the title). She was followed by a fellow writer of dystopias, David Mitchell, with From Me Flows What You Call Time. This year marks the first Nordic contribution, by the Icelandic poet, novelist and lyricist Sjón. He will hand over his manuscript during a ceremony in the forest, along with an already kitsch-seeming USB stick. In a final flourish, he will reveal his title.

Sjón told me the night before our journey into the forest that he has taken the idea of the project into the work, responding to it as though to a surrealist game fused with an Icelandic folk tale. For him, the leap into the temporal unknown is accompanied by a trepidation that his native tongue, despite its proud literary lineage, might be a barrier to his text being translated and understood through what he calls “the fog of the future”.

As we near our destination, my fellow future pilgrims appear, wearing a distinctive combination of librarian-style cardigans and apocalypse-proof outerwear. It was striking that, despite certain sartorial similarities, the project had drawn people from opposite sides of the globe, from Tokyo to Texas.

A man across from me shows me a camera with a bulging lens, with which he intends to live-stream the ceremony. He says that the gadget is the “opposite of a selfie stick, because it’s never just about you”. We alight on the platform, led by Sjón, who is dressed immaculately in a herringbone suit. “This is what we Icelanders wear to the forest,” he says, as we set off into the trees.

After half an hour of walking, we come to a clearing, where foresters in orange T-shirts tend to industrial-sized pots of coffee over open flames. One tells me, “For us, 100 years isn’t that long. We’re used to thinking that we won’t be around to see the trees grow.”

How foreign this idea must feel to an author who is used to a more immediate response to their work. Sjón tells me with a wry smile that, while he writes only for himself, there are certain readers he will miss not sharing this work with.

The atmosphere as we gather in the clearing is that of a bittersweet ritual, marking a transition into an unknown territory, to which, it seems, only the text and the trees will travel. A golden harp has somehow been transported to the forest and on it is played an Icelandic lullaby. Sjón reads his title first in Icelandic, and then in English: VII – As My Brow Brushes on the Tunics of Angels, or the Drop Tower, the Roller Coaster, the Whirling Cups and Other Instruments of Worship from the Post-Industrial Age.

Through the surrealist jumpcuts, we glimpse a text that appears playfully to splice what we consider sacred with the fairground ride of our times. But the only potential reader present is Katie Paterson’s child, who is still in her womb. The Future Library is just one of her many gifts to those who will come after us.

Photo: Getty
Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too
July 17th, 2017, 06:35 PM

A new report by the Advertising Standards Authority says a “tougher” stance must be taken on negative gender stereotyping.

Dads don’t go to Iceland. In fact, they can’t. Have you ever seen a dad in Iceland? No! Don’t be stupid. It’s mums that go to Iceland – if they find the time after being magnetically pulled towards that bloke on the beach with a can of Lynx Africa and emptying the Fairy Liquid for their offspring to make a rocket with. Hang on, what’s that her husband’s eating? It’s a Yorkie – you know, for boys. If girls eat them, they die.

Adverts are chock-full of gendered messaging – and obviously it’s not all bad. No one seriously thinks girls can’t handle “man crisps” McCoys or that dads that go to Iceland will be beaten out by Kerry Katona wielding a 24 Piece King Prawn Party Selection. Yet many adverts feature insidious messages that can slowly shape our perception of the world. Are all women supposed to be at the kitchen sink? Is yoghurt really the source of a woman’s orgasm? Are men incapable of looking after their own children and are they all sofa oafs unwilling – nay, unable – to iron a shirt or clean a kitchen tap?

Gender stereotypes like these have a negative impact on both women and men. A new report on gender stereotyping in advertising by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) argues that gender stereotypes “can lead to mental, physical and social harm which can limit the potential of groups and individuals”. In particular, young children easily internalise the messages they see. The report, entitled Deceptions, Perceptions, and Harm, argues that a “tougher line” needs to be taken on ads with stereotypical gender roles, or ads that mock people for not conforming to gender stereotypes.

Before now, the ASA has regulated adverts that sexualise women or present women who are unhealthily thin. Now, the CAP (who author the UK Advertising Codes) will develop new standards for ads that feature gender stereotypes, and the ASA will enforce these rules.

Via Twitter @pimlicat

“Such portrayals can limit how people see themselves, how others see them, and limit the life decisions they take. Tougher standards in the areas we’ve identified will address harms and ensure that modern society is better represented,” explained Ella Smillie, the lead author of the report.

This doesn’t mean you’ll no longer see mums doing the washing or dads mowing the lawn. The regulations haven’t yet been drawn up, but the report has examples of problematic adverts. If a woman is solely responsible for cleaning up while her family make a mess, for example, this could be flagged. In turn, adverts that show men trying and failing to do simple household tasks will be deemed a problem. The ASA isn’t a pre-emptive body, so they won’t go around mercilessly banning these adverts in a way that would make your dad (or mum, or sister) scream “political correctness gone mad!”. Rather, the organisation deals with complaints the public make and then issues sanctions if advertisers break the CAP code.

So, are you beach body ready? This infamous advert was part of the inspiration behind the new report and upcoming regulations. Although complaints about the ad were upheld by the ASA, this was in fact because Protein World, the advertiser, was making false claims about health and nutrition. The sexism in the advert that many objected to was not regulated by the ASA, and thus exposed a gap in its policies.

There are many similar adverts that have prompted complaints about gender stereotyping but that the ASA has not investigated or sanctioned because of this gap in the current regulations. An advert for Aptamil baby milk prompted complaints when it inferred boys could grow up to be rock climbers while girls become ballerinas. The ASA did not find grounds for a formal investigation. Last August, Gap was accused of sexism in adverts where boys were labelled “little scholars” and girls “social butterflies”. The ASA did not investigate after Gap took the adverts down itself following social media backlash.

Yet it is not just women who are limited by gender stereotypes in advertising. Between 2015 and 2016, the ASA considered 1,378 complaints related to the depiction of women and men. Of these, 465 cases dealt with the portrayal of men.

The ASA did not uphold complaints against a KFC advert which featured two men arguing about who was more manly. When one man mocked the other for having scented candles, the mocked man replied: “You know those candles help with my anxiety...  You're a monster.” Many complaints said the advert equated anxiety with a lack of masculinity, perpetuating the view that men should not admit to mental health issues. Under its old regulations, the ASA did not consider the ad would cause serious or widespread offence, or perpetuate damaging stereotypes. Though it is as yet unclear whether the new rules would see this advert banned, it is encouraging that similar adverts will now be challenged by the regulations.

And that’s the crux of it. Though many blame “feminazis” for narrowing the confines of acceptable and unacceptable media, these regulations should be celebrated even by those who don’t consider themselves feminist. Although a single advert might not make a man feel as though he has to behave or look a certain way, the ASA’s report explains how adverts can cumulatively affect us. Women and men aren’t born thinking they can do this or can’t do that – our media helps to shape this. “While advertising is only one of many factors that contribute to unequal gender outcomes, tougher advertising standards can play an important role in tackling inequalities and improving outcomes for individuals, the economy and society as a whole,” said Guy Parker, chief executive of the ASA.

So if Fairy Liquid, or Iceland, or Yorkie can make little boys and little girls feel that anything is possible – why shouldn’t they? Besides, aren’t we all bored of seeing lazy men and uptight women on TV? Shouldn't adverts be a little more imaginative? 

The CAP will report publicly on its progress developing the new rules by the end of 2017, with the new standards coming into force in 2018. 

Picture: Gap
An open letter to Glastonbury, from a victim
July 17th, 2017, 06:35 PM

When a music festival is more than just a music festival. 

Dear the Eavis family, and all who make Glastonbury happen,

So I write a lot of letters, but I promise this one will be worth reading – stick with it. This isn’t complaining about the crowds or the headliners, or telling the world how life-changing the week was for me to provoke envy-inducing angry faces all over Facebook. This is a story about a girl who contacted a giant festival who cater for hundreds of thousands with a request for help and was met with compassion, love and overwhelming acts of kindness.

I was lucky enough to get tickets to Glastonbury for the first year ever, with a group of friends who were equally as excited as I was – WhatsApp groups sharing outfits and line-up rumours sprung up within minutes of receiving the golden tickets, and June 2017 could not come soon enough.

Unfortunately for me, something horrible happened in April 2017, months before we were due to jump on the 2am coach down south. I was sexually assaulted by two of these "friends" after a night where I had mistakenly put my drunken trust in these guys at an after-party. My memories of the night were hazy; the drunken texts with other friends to come and save me, coupled with the injuries I sustained, were not. 

At the crisis centre the next day, as I lay sobbing on the table being photographed and probed by four nurses, I received a barrage of phone calls and threats from certain friends telling me to go home, to not report it. Telling me that no it wasn’t consensual but "don’t ruin the group" and "don’t ruin Glastonbury for us all". The nurses were asking me to report it to the police, but I was receiving 15 voicemails a day with threats from these friends, and with every threat received, another inch of my fight would disappear. 

Eventually, the harassment got worse. I couldn’t turn my phone on without getting more. I blocked the numbers, the contacts on Facebook, the accounts on Instagram, but they’d find more ways to get to me. This is the point I went to the police. 

After a harrowing three-hour video interview, I still couldn’t feel relieved. I had taken time off work, I was barely surviving on two months' worth of statutory sick pay and I was receiving threats not to attend the festival that I had been looking forward to for months.

The police officer recommended I get in touch with the festival, and try and ask for a refund to help my money troubles. I was gutted, but we agreed for my own personal safety whilst investigations were ongoing, it was the best route to take.

I couldn’t find a number, nor an email to contact, so I filled out a 500-word enquiry form on the website, assuming that with a festival that size receiving hundreds of enquiries per day, my plea for support may get overlooked.

It didn’t.

Instantly I received an email from an amazing human being – Marianna – who told me the Events Operations Lead would give me a call.

I received a call off Adrian a few days later. Adrian is an ex-police officer, and asked me to tell him what happened. It felt difficult disclosing the details over the phone to a stranger, but he made me feel at ease. 

Instantly he set to work. He told me he would do everything in his power to make sure I could attend the festival, and would put a safeguarding procedure in place to ensure I could. He contacted the detective constable at the police station dealing with my case, and together they devised a plan. Despite the fact he – as the Events Operations Lead – had one of the busiest jobs in the world weeks before the festival, he dedicated himself personally to me. I was overwhelmed (I had cried at least five times by this point – this will be a recurring theme in the next few paragraphs I’m afraid – stay with me).

He sent me a car parking pass in the post, so I wouldn’t have to get the coach with the friends who had been threatening me. 

(Side note: I called National Express, despite my ticket being non-refundable – to try and wangle a refund for the tickets I had bought. She asked why I was no longer going to Glastonbury. I reluctantly told the lady the story, she cried, I cried, she spoke to her boss, I got a refund. Humans are exceptional.)

I arrived at the festival with Tom at 8am on the Wednesday, and pulled into the staff car park, far away from where the rest of the revellers would be arriving. I was asked to call Marianna at this point and let her know I had arrived, so we started to attempt to load all of our belongings for five days, plus three crates and a shocking tent onto our backs. Marianna arrived, with a beautiful girl named Kerry driving a security vehicle, and both greeted me with the loveliest hug someone driving through the night could ever ask for. They were so unbelievably sweet and welcoming it was like meeting old friends again. They helped us load our stuff into the van and told us to jump in. We had no idea they were going to take us anywhere, we were prepared for the long, sweaty trek to the queue like the rest. They drove us up the the gate, and got out with us, with all of our things. At this point my anxiety was through the roof, I was looking over my shoulder frightened of catching glimpse of the perpetrator and their friends. Marianna noticed my worry, took my hand and walked us up to the security guard at the front of the queue. They had a quick chat and he ushered us right through, Marianna making sure she didn’t let go of me the whole time. 

We jumped through security in minutes, and climbed right back into the van that had been brought to the other side for us. Back in the van, they passed me an envelope. In the envelope contained a letter. The letter was from Adrian addressing whomever received it that "the bearer of the letter must have her requests for her safety taken seriously and she must be taken to safety immediately". I was asked to carry this letter, along with a list of numbers, with me throughout the whole festival, just in case. I was also passed two hospitality wrist bands, one for Tom and one for me. These offered us a space behind the Pyramid and Other stage which had quieter bars only accessible to hospitality wrist band holders, so in case I became overwhelmed or needed a place to clear my head a bit, I had it. 

I broke down in the back of the van. Marianna came round to the door and gave me a huge hug. I had asked for none of this, and yet these incredible humans had come together to make sure for the next five days I wouldn’t have to feel like a victim – I could actually enjoy the festival. In a festival catering for so many, they really gave a shit. They gave a million shits. More shits than I could ever have expected or asked for. 

They dropped us off at a camp where they wouldn’t expect our friends to be, and took us to our reserved spot behind the stewards, who were all briefed about the circumstances. They all greeted me with hugs and helped us carry all of our things from the van and get ourselves set up. Saying goodbye to Marianna and Kerry, I handed over THE WORST thank you card ever – like, how on earth can a thank you card ever be enough? Especially when it said "you are a good egg" with a picture of an egg on the front (my card buying skills need work) and we all hoped to find each other again in the midst of the crazy. Kerry came to our camp once the next day to check in (hugs aplenty) but we never did see the others again.

And the festival was amazing. 

Yeah, there were places I didn’t feel comfortable going (I knew where they were camped) and favourite bands I opted out of seeing in smaller tents (I knew they’d be there) but I can thankfully say I never had to use the letter. 

I mean, there were times with my new friends we had made (Kitty, Sean, Catherine <3) when we were waiting in big queues and they were jokingly like "USE THE MAGIC LETTER" but I didn’t. I was safe. I was really really safe.

I made some new great friends, I saw some incredible acts, my tan lines are ridiculous, my hangovers were unreal and at the end of it all, I didn’t feel like a victim, I felt like someone who had finally been to Glastonbury. 

So, this letter is to say, thank you. God I wish there were a stronger sentiment. Not many people would be aware of the amazing work you did for me – you didn’t do it so you could write about it, or get a pay rise, or for glory, you did it because you really cared. And I doubt my minimal blog readers would make this reach the heady heights of Michael Eavis (but please do share away, yeah?), but on a deeper level, I am writing this to say that people really care. Sometimes when you lose all hope, the unbelievable and altruistic kindness of strangers can help give you the strength to keep fighting. 

I have met some really awful humans in my life, who have killed my spirit and, in all honesty, made me feel life wasn’t worth living anymore. To me it wasn’t just a festival, it was genuinely restoring my faith in people again. People that really fucking care.

So, Adrian, Marianna, Kerry and the rest of the team, I hope you see this. If you don’t, I hope you know that you made a difference, and you made me feel like a survivor again. 

Lots of love,

Laura x

This letter was originally published on Laura's blog, Life on Laura Lane. It is republished with permission from the writer

Getty
Promises Had Been Made
July 17th, 2017, 06:35 PM

A new poem by Declan Ryan.

Sam Cooke was being murdered
in the bar of the Corinthia,
another retromaniac crooning
this year’s theme-tune. If you ever change your mind…  
You had your Yeats by heart.
You said you’d butcher it, and sure enough
paused, and started lines again.
I didn’t have it to compare
so when you spoke in a low voice
I was convinced you were writing it on air.

A few days on we stood out on your roof,
between Big Ben
and Nelson. Promises had been made
about the moon.
It was caught behind cloud and seemed no fuller
than it ever had,
no nearer than before.
There were clouds across us two,
made of the obscuring months
we passed beneath these same old constellations.

I took on faith you saying
it was the brightest it will ever be,
drawing in as close as it was able.
On faith, I would accept you as the brightest
in my span of years,
the future swinging
whatever light’s still left in its bone lantern.
Apparently we’re already old enough
to mean this won’t happen again
in our lifetime.

Declan Ryan was born in Mayo, Ireland, and lives in London. A pamphlet of his poems was published in the Faber New Poets series in 2014. 

Photo: Getty
Does the general election’s record-sized electorate mean the Tories are doomed?
July 17th, 2017, 06:35 PM

The government changed voter registration rules, but that hasn’t stopped a record number signing up to vote.

The general election in June saw the UK’s biggest ever electorate. A record number of people were registered to vote by polling day – 46.8 million in total, up 500,000 from 2015, according to the Electoral Commission.

Yes, part of this is simply that the population is increasing. But we don’t get a record-sized electorate every year, or every national vote. For example, in 2015, the number of people registered for parliamentary elections was 1.3 per cent smaller than in 2014. So there are other factors at play, too.

One is simply that online electoral registration has made the process easier. There have also been high-profile campaigns to sign people up – so successful that more than 2.9 million applied to vote between Theresa May’s announcement of the snap election on 18 April and the deadline a month later. This included 612,000 on deadline day (22 May) itself.

Plus – as I have written before – the EU referendum and numerous other votes in a short period have got people into the habit of voting, or at least registering, rather than giving the population “election fatigue”.

But what does this mean for future elections? The dip between 2014 and 2015 coincides with the introduction of Individual Electoral Registration in 2014. This was a change to voter registration rolled out by the government in England, Wales and Scotland that year – controversial for making more than 800,000 people drop off the register.

The reform, which changed household and university block registering to individual registering, had a particular impact on traditionally Labour-friendly voters. Students and young people – more likely to be registered by university and someone else in their household, respectively – were the worst hit by the changes.

Labour accused the Conservatives of playing politics with the electoral register. Whether or not this is fair, the Tories clearly feel less obliged to join in with voter registration campaigns generally – a Press Association analysis found that the party didn’t once use social media to encourage people to vote a week before the deadline this year.

Yet it increasingly seems that neither inaction nor action by the Conservatives will stop the numbers registered to vote rising. And in a way that they should fear. The Electoral Commission found that 69 per cent of online applications made after the election announcement were from people aged under 34, compared to the mere 8 per cent from those over 55. This shows that young people – overwhelmingly more likely to vote Labour – are receptive to voter registration drives, and reforming the system is no longer putting them off, or shaking them off.

Photo: Pixabay
Former Momentum vice-chair Jackie Walker plans one-woman Edinburgh Fringe show
July 17th, 2017, 06:35 PM

Campaigners against antisemitism have called the plan to take the show to Labour's party conference "shameful".

Labour campaigners against antisemitism have criticised controversial Momentum member Jackie Walker’s plans to hold a one-woman Edinburgh Fringe show.

Walker’s show, The Lynching, is the “horrific tale” of what happened to her after Labour was enveloped in an antisemitism row, according to the press release. The former Momentum vice-chair is quoted saying she was “demonised” by the media and received “disgusting” abuse online. She adds: “This show is my chance to tell my side of the story.”

As well as the Edinburgh Fringe, she plans to hold a performance in Brighton to coincide with the Labour party conference. It is not part of the party conference programme or Momentum's conference, The World Transformed.

A spokeswoman from the Jewish Labour Movement called the show “shameful”. 

Walker, born to a Jamaican mother and a Russian Jewish father, was first suspended from the Labour Party in May 2016 after she described Jews as the “chief financiers of the sugar and slave trade” on Facebook.

She was later reinstated, but caused a second controversy at Momentum's The World Transformed conference, when she claimed an anti-Jeremy Corbyn media had turned antisemitism into a “weapon of political mass destruction”. She also suggested Holocaust Memorial Day did not commemorate victims of other genocides (it does), and questioned the need for security at Jewish schools.

In the aftermath of her comments, Walker was suspended again from the Labour Party and stripped of her senior position in Momentum

A Jewish Labour Movement spokeswoman described the show as a “fringe meeting” on “the fringes of the fringe with no support from anybody of any relevance at all”.  

She added: “This is a shameful doubling down on the politics of hatred and division whilst she is already the subject of a serious disciplinary investigation.  

“To claim that she is the victim of a lynching is to compare Jews and others who oppose antisemitism to racist gangs who hanged black people from trees. We hope that this point will not be lost on Labour officials investigating her.”

Mike Katz, Jewish Labour’s vice-chair, said it was “high time” the party changed its rules to deal more effectively with hate speech. He added: “We need to make it absolutely clear that the party has zero tolerance of all hate, and that every minority community can feel at home in Labour.”

Wes Streeting, the Labour MP for Ilford North, described the show as “disingenuous”. He added: “Many of us regularly criticise the Israeli government, we just manage to do it without resorting to antisemitic tropes.”

A Labour Party spokeswoman said: “Jackie Walker remains suspended from the Labour party.” 

Update: 18.07.17

Walker said: "I was disappointed but not surprised at the reporting of my suspension from the Labour party in this article. To hear a fuller and more accurate version of my comments, please visit Electronic Intifada or Jews For Justice For The Palestinians."

Photo: Getty
After episode one of the new season, who is on top in Game of Thrones?
July 17th, 2017, 06:35 PM

“Dragonstone” asked us to visualise the key alliances and enmities of the seventh season.

“Dragonstone”, the first episode of Game of Thrones’ seventh season, ended with a beginning. Daenerys, having finally reached her ancestral seat, the dramatic-looking Dragonstone, strides through the gates, admires her throne, and enters The Chamber of the Painted Table. The table – which we’ve seen before as Stannis Baratheon’s strategy room in season two – is carved into the shape of Westeros, with model ships and armies that are moved around the board. She runs her fingers from the North to the South, her hand trailing over the place where the Wall meets the sea, before standing at the Southern coast. “Shall we begin?”

There was a lot of build-up to get to this point. The cold open, which saw Arya disguised as Walder Frey poison the entire Frey army with some deliciously vengeful dialogue (“When people ask you what happened here, tell them the North remembers. Tell them winter came for House Frey.”), felt like it belonged to the (literally) explosive two episodes that rounded off season six. But once the credits rolled, this opener felt slower, thicker, and more bogged down in exposition.

After an obligatory shot of the White Walkers and the army of the dead walking slowly through mist (God, these fuckers walk slow), alerting us that Wun Wun the Giant has become one of their weapons, we rush through updates on Bran (who has finally abandoned his tree prison and reached the Night’s Watch), Sam (who doesn’t love a good bedpan montage!!), Euron (inexplicably dressed like a dad rocker), Brienne (still constantly glaring at Tormund), Littlefinger (still very horny for Sansa, and power), The Hound (still hates fire) and Ed Sheeran (still painfully embarrassing).

So while not a lot actually happened, this episode asked us to visualise the key alliances and enmities of the coming season. It cemented the idea suggested in trailers that Daenerys, Cersei and Jon are the three rulers to watch – with the key scenes taking place in their castles. Aside from Dany’s sculpted table map, we saw Cersei explaining her exposed position stood on a painted floor map; Sam discover a further, mineral need for Jon and Daenerys to join together when he spots a dragonglass mine in a map of Dragonstone; The Hound have a vision of the White Walkers penetrating the Wall where it meets the sea; and Jon and Sansa stress that Last Hearth and Karhold Castles are the most northern and the most vulnerable to an attack from beyond the Wall. It’s as if the producers are asking: “Everyone’s mental maps up to scratch? Good, cause you’re going to need ‘em.”

It also reminded us of the key tensions within teams. Thrones has not been coy about comparing Cersei and Sansa in the past, and this season it seems like these parallels will be more obvious than ever. Both have tensions appearing in their relationships with their brothers, who, for both women, are their closest allies. Both suffer the romantic attentions of men they are repulsed by due to a reliance on their armies. Both are too hardened by unspeakable past traumas to care for much other than the defeat of those who threaten their lives. “You almost sound as if you admire her,” Jon says when Sansa speaks of Cersei. “I learned a great deal from her,” Sansa replies, and it’s hard not to think of Cersei’s warning that a woman’s “best weapon is between her legs.”

“Dragonstone” swapped out actual action for foreshadowing of things to come. Sam is told by a Maester that, “Without us, men would be little better than dogs,” perhaps signalling how important Sam’s knowledge will be to Jon and the Stark wolves, especially when coupled with Sansa’s insistence that Jon needs to be cleverer than Ned and Robb. The Hound’s vision of the army of the dead marching by “a mountain, looks like an arrowhead” could refer to his dead-but-walking brother, The Mountain, who wears a pointy helmet. We hear several lines concerning the sacrifices of ordinary men – Thrones has long been clear that wars are won or lost based on the ordinary man’s willingness to fight for you.

As more men die, it becomes increasingly clear that women and children – from Lyanna Mormont to Ned Umber to Alys Karstark – will have a significant role to play in the coming wars. Cersei’s lack of children, and how she will build a legacy as a result, becomes a troubling question. Euron says he will fetch her a “priceless” gift to woo her – an heir? Or Tyrion, the brother she so desperately wants murdered?

Meanwhile, fans note that in her map scene, Cersei stands at an area of Westeros known as “The Neck”, Jaime at “The Fingers” – in the books, it's prophesied that Cersei will be strangled by her “little brother”. Hands reappear in this episode – when insisting Cersei should kill her brother, Euron taunts him by saying he has “a thousand ships and two good hands”. Ed Sheeran’s lacklustre cameo sees him sing the refrain “For hands of gold are always cold / But a woman’s hands are warm.” I’m starting to wonder if Jaime will end up doing something grim with that gold hand of his.

But on to the important questions. WHO was the baddest bitch in this week’s Game of Thrones?

Bad bitch points are awarded as follows:

  • Arya slaughtering a hall full of men from behind the face of their own Lord, sparing the abused women, and whispering iconic lines about wolves, sheep, and how Winter came for the Freys. +27.
  • Jon insisting women join the fight. +5. I will regard Jon in this mode like I do all male feminists – with extreme scepticism.  
  • Lyanna Mormont repping Bear Island like an iconic goddess. +34. Who can argue with lines like “I don’t plan on knitting by the fire while men fight for me. I might be small, Lord Glover, and I might be a girl, but I am every bit as much a Northerner as you. And I don’t need your permission to defend the North”? Literally no one, that’s who.
  • Sansa taking her seat at the Winterfell table. +11. I like her ambition, but this doesn’t seem like the best strategy to use to get Jon to listen to her advice.
  • Sansa: “No need to seize the last word Lord Baelish, I will assume it was something clever.” +17. You’re doing amazing, sweetie.
  • Euron’s weird Hot Topic does Pirates of the Caribbean merch outfit. -19.
  • Ableist loser Euron taking the piss out of Jaime’s gold fist while wearing his poor man’s Johnny Depp garb. -21.
  • Arya eating Ed Sheeran’s food. +7. Please starve him by depriving him of his fair share, like our guinea pig starved its hutchmates.
  • Arya not murdering Ed Sheeran. -21.
  • Ed Sheeran, existing. -136.
  • Cersei’s scheming. -5. As the ripples of her terror attack subside, Cersei looks a lot less badass and a lot more… weak. But then again, Cersei does thrive when people underestimate her.
  • Tormund’s bold flirting strategy. +7
  • The Hound: “You’re not fooling anyone with that top knot, ya bald cunt.” +13.
  • Sam shovelling poop. -12.
  • Sam picking up a human heart and liver like it’s no big deal. +9.
  • Sam stealing books. +12.
  • Dany finally reaching her castle in Westeros, not even pausing to claim the nicest bedroom or have a piss before beginning her military strategy. +17.

That means the baddest bitch of the week is, of course, Lady Lyanna Mormont. Tremble before her presence. This (and every) week’s loser is Ed Sheeran.  

Picture: HBO
Can boundary changes save the Conservatives?
July 17th, 2017, 06:35 PM

The proposed boundary changes would make the parliamentary arithmetic more comfortable for the Tories – but they will struggle to pass them. 

Can the Conservatives win a majority just by waiting? Although the economy looks pre-recessional and the party is split on a number of issues, they have an ace in the hole: boundary changes, which will reduce the number of constituencies by 50 to 600 and make them all the same size, advantaging the Tories.

The final proposals for these changes are set to be completed in mid-2018, with a parliamentary vote in the autumn.

Although the impact of boundary changes can be overstated, they do hurt Labour slightly, but the important part there is the word “slightly”. On current boundaries, Labour needs a swing of 1 per cent from the Conservatives to gain 30 seats and be able to form a comfortable minority government. The Conservatives, in contrast, need a swing of just 1 per cent from Labour to gain 25 seats, and with that, regain their Commons majority. After boundary changes, the Tories need a 0.75 per cent swing and Labour a 1.25 per cent swing to achieve the same result.

But in a close election like the last one, every 0.25 counts. Electoral Calculus’ Martin Baxter has run the figures through the new boundaries, and had the last contest been fought on them, the result would have looked a bit like this:

The Conservatives would have got 298 seats, down 20 from the 318 they actually won last month.

Labour would have got 245 seats, down 17 from 262.

The SNP would have got 32 seats, down just three from 35.

The Liberal Democrats would have got seven seats, down five from 12.

The Greens would lose their sole seat of Brighton Pavilion, and the biggest loser would be Plaid Cymru, which would have got just one seat, down three from four.

In Northern Ireland, the DUP would have lost three seats, with just seven, while Sinn Féin would have been the largest party in Northern Ireland, up two to nine seats.

So all in all, you might think, a lot of fuss about nothing. The Conservatives would have gone from being seven seats short of a majority in a parliament of 650 to two seats in a parliament of 600. But the big, big difference is that once you deduct Sinn Féin’s seats from the total – remember that this party does not take its seats at Westminster – the Conservatives would actually have a working majority of 20 seats.

So the Conservatives just have to wait until they can pass through new boundaries in 2018, right? The difficulty is that passing boundary changes has always been trickier than it looks, because it is good for the Conservative Party but bad for individual Tory MPs. The party has a policy of “No Conservative left behind” – no MP who loses a seat through boundary changes will not be given an alternative one to fight at the election.

But the difficulty is that this was a much more attractive offer when Conservative MPs thought they would be switching a Conservative-held seat to a Labour-held one that would easily fall to the Tories – now it means persuading 17 Tory MPs to vote for unemployment, it’s a much less attractive offer now. (And Tory MPs were always a bit wary of switching their seats, particularly if they felt they had made an enemy of the party leadership.) Still harder a sell are their allies in the DUP, who would have to vote to not only reduce their own numbers at Westminster but also to add to the number of Sinn Féin seats.

So while boundary changes would slightly advantage the Conservatives were they to be implemented, it’s very difficult to see how any changes that reduce the number of MPs will pass the Commons without another election.

Photo: Getty
Jodie Whittaker's Doctor Who is the heroic female super nerd we've been waiting for
July 17th, 2017, 06:35 PM

Doctor Who isn’t any old show, in the same way that a wedding isn’t just any old party.

It’s about time. After years of febrile speculation and fan-theory, it’s now official: Doctor Who will soon be played by a woman, and the iconic five-decade-old BBC science fiction behemoth will regenerate into a series with a modern understanding of gender. The paroxysms of delight from the show’s legion of female, queer and progressive viewers have been met by a chorus of horror from people who are outraged at the idea that a fictional time-travelling alien from the planet Gallifrey could possibly be a woman. The argument that they cast the best actor for the job, and the best actor happened to be Broadchurch star Jodie Whittaker, fails to convince those for whom the future can never be female, and time can never be rewritten, and unlikely heroes can never win the day, and tradition should always take precedence over justice, equality and fairness It’s just possible that those people have missed the point of Doctor Who.

This is a family show, and the writers always give you plenty of warning so you can hide behind the sofa when a particularly scary apparition stalks onto the screen – like a living statue that can kill you faster than blinking, or a woman playing your favourite character. In the final episode of the last series, The Doctor, in their latest incarnation as Peter Capaldi, explained to his companion that yes, Time Lords are indeed flexible on “the whole man-woman thing”.

“We are the most civilised civilisation in the universe. We’re billions of years beyond your petty obsession with gender and its associated stereotypes.”

This is too much for some fans, who have poutily announced that Doctor Who is ruined forever and they won’t watch it any more. They said the same thing ten years ago, when former show runner Russell T Davies made a point of including explicitly gay and bisexual characters in almost every episode. That didn’t hurt viewing figures one bit – and for those of us who were queer teenagers at the time, seeing people like us have adventures in space was like letting out a breath we’d been holding for years.

Doctor Who isn’t any old show, in the same way that a wedding isn’t just any old party. It’s a mishmash of emotion and tradition bogged down by the pressure of meeting so many clashing expectations, and no matter how magical it turns out, someone’s always going to go home in tears. For the same reason, Doctor Who is by no means the best show on television – it’s something else entirely, a steaming juggernaut of collective cultural storytelling that can’t change course without sirens blaring across the nerdsphere. With so many different fans to disappoint, Doctor Who will never please everyone – but just like at a wedding, gender-swapping the major players still has the power to move an old story in an exhilarating new direction.

When I told my mum that Doctor Who was a woman now, I wasn’t sure how she’d react. In fact, she was remarkably accepting. “After all this time,” she said “I’m just happy for you. I know you’ve thought about it a lot, and it’s practically normal now. I hear they’ve even got female Ghostbusters these days.”

Mum has never really understood my life choices, but she always knew I was different – when other little girls were dreaming of white weddings and handsome princes, I wanted to grow up and go on a quest or save the world from an invading horde of Nazi salt shakers. The millions of other baby weirdos who happened to be women never got to read or watch stories where girls like them could really rewrite the course of history. Even now, female protagonists are still rare enough in popular culture, and most of them tend to win the day by showing up in undersized perfect hair and kicking people in the face. This is the sort of female hero we’ve learned to tolerate, the “fighting fuck-toy”, in Anita Sarkeesian’s immortal words – damaged but sexy, a stock figure for whom “well-rounded” is a strictly physical description.

Doctor Who is a different sort of hero. The Doctor solves problems not by being the strongest, the fastest or the one with the biggest army, but by outthinking everyone else in the room. Far too many female characters are two-dimensional. I’m ready for one that can travel in four. I’m ready to watch a woman save the world again and again by being very, very clever and very, very moral, without having to have a man sort anything out or come and save her. I’m ready for a woman hero who’s older than recorded history and weirder than a three-day bender in the BBC props cupboard. I’m ready for a female super nerd. And so is the rest of the world.

Naysayers have complained that if the Doctor is not male, nerdy young men will lose a key role model – a hero in the lone eccentric genius mode who does not resort to violence to win the day. The loudest dissenting voices come from adult male fans for whom the idea of ever relating to a female hero is a threat to their core sense of self. Children are more malleable. Tell a little boy whose bedroom is covered in posters of daleks that the kindest and cleverest person in the universe is a girl now and he’ll probably be right on board.

The prospect of little girls getting to watch an eccentric genius save the day and see themselves in her is pretty darn gleeful – but the idea that little boys might do the same is just as exciting. Finally, young men will grow up having to accept, as young women have for so long, that the hero might not always look just like you. Finally, little girls won’t have to settle for stories where we can travel in time and space, but only if we are young and pretty and manage to attract the attention of a brilliant older man. Finally, little boys too will grow up watching a different sort of story – one in which anyone can embody interplanetary competence, even a girl.

These are the kind of stories that have been told about men for generations in popular culture, generations which clung relentlessly to the idea that “strong” women would always be token figures, would always have to stand a few paces behind the protagonist, waiting for him to explain the plot, rescue her, or both at once. Time after time, the most iconic and complex female characters on screen have been created when a woman wound up cast in a role originally written for a man. From Alien's Ellen Ripley, to Battlestar Galactica's Starbuck, when writers aren't bogged down by all the cliches about what women can and can't do in a story, characters can breathe and grow. The same rule applies to the real world. We can only become what we can imagine.

Of course, there are infinite ways that this could go horribly wrong. I’m going to have my bingo-card out for blonde jokes, period jokes, offhand comments about women drivers in the Tardis, overplayed romantic subplots and any and all reference to or reliance on “feminine wiles” to save the day. The Doctor does not need feminine wiles. She’s thousands of years old and once brought down an invading alien army with a satsuma. I’d also be grateful, in general terms, if we could call a moratorium on any future planet-eating crises being solved by the power of love. 

I’m certainly not going to give up the international nerd sport of complaining that Doctor Who isn’t as good as it used to be, because that’s part of the point of the show. No matter how much we whinge, most real fans will carry on watching regardless, because we love Doctor Who like you love your obstreperous relative with a lot of madcap schemes for whom, let’s face it, changing gender after fifty years is completely in character.

I suspect that some of the protests are being played up with an ulterior motive in mind. I’ve an inkling that the fans who are yelling the loudest about the casting of Whittaker as political correctness gone mad, as an insult to of the spirit of the show and proof that feminism is poisoning this and every other inhabited planet, are just hoping that the Doctor will notice that they’ve become trapped in a 1950s time warp and show up in the Tardis to save them. They needn’t try so hard. The Doctor will always come and save you, including from your own worst impulses, and if you’re ready to follow her through time and space, there’s no telling where the story will go next. 

Photo: BBC
SNP deputy Westminster leader Kirsty Blackman: “Parliament needs more millennials”
July 17th, 2017, 06:35 PM

The SNP's Westminster deputy leader on diversity and filling Angus Robertson's shoes. 

The Scottish National Party might have a famous female leader, but for many years in Westminster, the face of the party was two middle-aged men: Angus Robertson and his deputy leader Stewart Hosie. Then came the 2017 election. Robertson lost his seat, while Hosie had already lost his dignity through an affair with a journalist. And the SNP lost a third of its seats.

The surviving MPs duly elected another middle-aged man, Ian Blackford, as Westminster leader. But for the deputy, they chose Kirsty Blackman, a critic of parliamentary traditions. She made headlines in 2016 after she was censured for bringing her children to a committee hearing, and has used Twitter to share her personal experience of depression. 

“I'm 31,” the MP for Aberdeen North says when we meet in the light-filled atrium of Portcullis House in late June. “I'm quite comfortable being a millennial.” Blackman, who has short, light brown hair and an upbeat style, plans to use her platform to campaign for “a more diverse Parliament so it’s more representative of society”. 

Of the large parties, the SNP has the best record on LGBTQ MPs (20 per cent) and the second best record on gender equality, with women making up a third of MPs. But after the loss of Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh, the Westminster cohort looks glaringly white (Scotland’s black and minority ethnic population stands at 4 per cent). 

Blackman is also interested in another demographic – young people. There are, she notes, few young MPs: “There are not that many of us who are under 35.” (The SNP's Mhairi Black, aged 22 on her re-election, remains the Baby of the House). 

“I don't think that there are huge numbers of people in parliament who've got a real grasp of what it means to be a young person these days – living in precarious housing, having zero-hours contracts,” she says. “And also, I don't think enough people have thought through the consequences of that for the future.”

She cites the housing benefit rule that under-35s may only claim enough to live in a shared house. 

“There are fewer millennial families because people can't afford to have children,” she says. “People in shared properties aren't exactly given the opportunity to create children are they?

“This has a knock-on impact for the economy in the future. It also has a knock-on impact for the NHS in the future because being an older parent means that there are more risks of health problems for both the mother and the children.”

So far as millennials are concerned, she “would love to talk to everybody about this” on a “cross-party basis” or even “a millennial all-party group”. 

Blackman’s focus on millennial needs is refreshing in a political system intent on wooing the grey vote. But how does Blackman square this with the SNP’s enthusiastic campaign, led by the new Westminster leader, to compensate older women who have to wait longer for their pensions? 

“It’s not an either-or,” she says. Rather, “it's about making sure everybody can have a level of protection”. 

For now, though, the focus will be on Prime Minister’s Questions and whether Blackford can command the respect afforded to his predecessor. 

Robertson will be “hugely missed”, Blackman acknowledges.“I think Angus always picked the right question for PMQs,” she says. “His message was always brilliant. He wasn't combative about it. I don't want to say gentle because that's not the right word. He wasn't shouty and fighty. But he's much more measured.”

So will Blackford and Blackman regenerate as Robertson 2.0? “Ian's got his own style, and I've got my own style. When we're speaking, its difficult to reset yourself. I think we'll be what we are.”

The duo will focus on opposing austerity and Brexit. As for independence: “Our mission in Westminster is what it's always been: stand up for the people of Scotland.”

Blackman frames independence as a “choice”, in line with the new tone from Holyrood after an election in which the SNP lost a third of its seats. She is vague about when it could happen: “We'd love to get independence in 2018, or 2019, or 2020, or at some point, so my children can grow up in an independent Scotland.”

For all the Braveheart stereotypes, a crucial part of the Scottish independence movement was the drive to reform and create something new. Blackman’s desire for independence, and her frustration about the stuffiness of parliament, often seem to spring from the same place. “I'm working to work myself out of a job in this place,” she says. “I've no desire to stay here forever.”

Photo: Kirsty Blackman