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    Sean "P Diddy" Combs claims to be an "Abbey-head". Michelle Obama requested advanced copies of the most recent series, and invited Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern to the White House - what do the yanks see in it that so many Brits don't?

    Until recently in the United States, the costume drama was a minority taste. Merchant Ivory adaptations of 19th-century novels and the imported British series shown on US public television’s Masterpiece Theatre have long been regarded as the fusty province of wistful former English majors and the sort of matron who tours stately homes in white athletic shoes, marvelling over the lifestyles of the rich and historical.

    Then came Downton Abbey, the object of almost as much fascination as the Harry Potter books before it. The drama, which debuted in the US in 2011, was the highestrated cable or broadcast show when its thirdseries finale aired in February this year, reaching 12.3 million viewers and becoming the most popular drama in the history of the Public Broadcasting Service. It has a remarkably broad appeal. The celebrities who claim to be obsessed with it include the late-night talk-show hosts Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Fallon and Craig Ferguson, the comedian Patton Oswalt (who live-tweets each episode), the country star Reba McEntire and the singer Katy Perry, as well as bona fide film stars such as Harrison Ford (who has hinted that he would consider a role in the programme) and the hip-hop singers Jay Electronica and Sean “Diddy” Combs.

    The last example may raise eyebrows, but Diddy did make a hilarious parody video for the website Funny or Die, in which he was inserted into various scenes from the series playing an invented character, Lord Wolcott. He professes to be an “Abbey-head”, but since he pronounces it “Downtown Abbey”, the sincerity of that claim is subject to some doubt. If Diddy really is an Abbey-head, he’s got plenty of company. There has been an Abbey-themed promo spot for The Simpsons (Simpton Abbey, in which a pink-glazed doughnut was placed on a china plate with silver tongs) and more parody videos than you can count, including a drag version, a Breaking Bad version (produced by the satirical TV pundit Stephen Colbert), a Sesame Street version, The Fresh Prince of Downton Abbey and, naturally, a “Harlem Shake” version. Michelle Obama is such a fan that last autumn she requested advance DVDs of the third series from ITV and invited two of the show’s stars, Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern, to the White House.

    Why do Americans love Downton Abbey so much? More than one Brit has asked me this before carefully explaining that, in the UK, the series is viewed not as top-drawer drama, but rather as the British equivalent of American prime-time soaps such as Dynasty. Don’t we realise that? In fact, we do – well, many of us do – and we relish the camp element of Downton Abbey, which is why there are all those parodies. But yes, there are other Americans who think of it as their foray into “classy” entertainment (as Harrison Ford called it), because it’s full of fancy English people, is set in the past and airs on public television. That the show appeals to different audiences in different ways is surely one of the secrets of its success.

    Perhaps the most benighted critics are those would-be arbiters anxious to inform the rest of us that mistaking this sort of thing for art just won’t do. Hendrik Hertzberg of the New Yorker welcomed the rather glum BBC adaptation of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End starring Benedict Cumberbatch with hurrahs, averring that he could not “stomach” Downton Abbey, on account of “its blizzards of anachronisms, its absurd soap-operatics, and its Oprah-style oversharing between aristos and servants”.

    Cumberbatch similarly dismissed Downton as a “nostalgia trip” that was “fucking atrocious”. Daniel Day-Lewis says he’s never watched it because “that is why I left England” and Jeremy Irons has likened it to a Ford Fiesta, which “will get you there and give you a good time” but not much more. (This from a star of The Borgias!) Irons hopes Downton Abbey will serve as a gateway drug to Shakespeare, apparently assuming that viewers might never otherwise be exposed to the Bard but now they’ve got a load of Lady Mary, it’s a slippery slope to King Lear.

    The “nostalgia” to which Cumberbatch referred comes up a lot in a related form of concern-trolling surrounding Downton Abbey. Doesn’t the show, commentators ask with furrowed brow, fetishise and fawn over an outdated and unjust class system? Isn’t it troubling that the American public, despite its much-touted embrace of equality and meritocracy, gobbles up this “steaming, silvered tureen of snobbery”, to quote the British-born historian Simon Schama, in a desperate search for “something, anything, to take its mind off the perplexities of the present”? Schama can’t abide Downton Abbey, he wrote on the Daily Beast, having been subjected in his youth to “the motheaten haughtiness of the toffs” at a country house much like the titular abbey.

    That is just the point, though: Americans may have suffered class wounds of their own, but not at the hands of toffs, whether motheaten or freshly laundered. Most Americans don’t even know what a toff is and the finer delineations of the British social hierarchy – the way a person’s speech can immediately place him or her in a very precise slot, for example – are largely lost on us. We have regional accents and stereotypes to go with them, but nothing so exquisitely telling as that. For Americans, the interlocking, classdefined relationships in a British country house in the early 20th century are intriguingly peculiar (why should Lord Grantham be taken aback to find himself related to a doctor?) or comically absurd (why must Daisy be kept out of sight of the family and its guests? And ironing the newspapers? Really?).

    Americans have always found British manners and formality amusing, especially from a distance, where it is a lot less intimidating. There are few distances more unassailable than a century. The geographic, historical and cultural gulf between modern America and Edwardian Britain gives the milieu of Downton Abbey an exotic, theme-park quality. Even if Americans might daydream about what it would be like to work as a housemaid at the abbey or swan around in Lady Gran - tham’s spectacular dresses while being waited on hand and foot, neither scenario is even remotely an option for us.

    For all its unfamiliarity, however, Downton Abbey wouldn’t speak to American audiences at all if they didn’t find much to identify with in the travails and intrigues that go on upstairs and down in the scullery. “I think most of the stories are about emotional situations that everyone can understand,” Julian Fellowes, the series creator and writer, platitudinously told the New York Times.

    Downton Abbey as a dramatic setting has the advantage of being both a household and a workplace, two sites that have always proven fertile ground for conflict and pathos. But there is another parallel that American viewers often bring into play when engaging with this and other stories about the British class system: high school.

    American popular culture has been reima - gining 19th-century British society as a version of American high school for decades, just not in genres where it’s likely to attract the interest of critics. Romance novels have taught American readers to understand the British class system in this way. Anyone who has read a decent amount of 19th-century British fiction or social histories of the period would likely be perplexed upon dipping into one of the thousands of “Regency” and “Victorian” romances published here every year.

    The characters in these historical romances don’t behave anything like the British aristocrats of the 1800s – or like any other 19thcentury Brits, for that matter. But if you’re looking for the “blizzards of anachronisms”, “absurd soap-operatics” and “Oprah-style oversharing” to which Hertzberg objects in Downton Abbey, well, pick up a paperback and pull up a chair.

    In place of the captain of the football team, the Regency romance has a duke, and instead of a shy bespectacled girl, the heroine is likely to be a young lady of ordinary looks and no fortune whose inner merits the hero, alone of all others, readily perceives. Instead of a catty cheerleader as the heroine’s romantic rival, there is a society beauty, complete with a mean-girl clique that might as well have 

    been lifted right out of a John Hughes film. The sexual mores of the characters’ social circle, instead of being founded in the Christian morality, male supremacism and class pre - judices of 19th-century England, is merely a matter of prudish scandalmongering and mean-spirited, small-town gossip. The intricate, exclusionary subtlety of centuries of upper-class manners gets translated into the bratty snootiness of American adolescence.

    Downton Abbey may not fit as exactly on to the familiar stock figures of the American high school but the rigid, claustrophobic social hierarchies of the high-school experience remain the easiest point of reference for US viewers. Lord Grantham resembles the highminded yet out-of-touch principal and his daughters the student body’s most popular belles, girls whose social and romantic lives serve as universal topics of conversation. Matthew Crawley is the new transfer student, who turns out to be a catch despite his modest background. The conniving O’Brien and Thomas are recognisable as the bullies who afflict so many sensitive adolescents, Mr Carson and Mrs Hughes function as the wise and seasoned teachers who can be counted on to intervene before things get too bad, and Daisy, with her string of hopeless crushes, speaks to many a formerly dreamy mouse.

    All this probably explains why Schama, who has experienced the real thing, finds the setting of Downton Abbey oppressive while Americans see it as a great-looking venue, ripe with dishy spats, romantic triangles and overwrought drama. It’s not that Americans don’t grasp the injustice in the social hierarchy of Edwardian Britain; they just don’t take it seriously. It is part of the (dubious) mythos of American life that some day the tables will be turned: the ugly duckling could become a swan and the nerd a master of the universe.

    For Americans, high school is rife with cruelty and unfairness, with an elite that benefits from the arbitrary blessings of birth (money, good looks, athletic prowess), but it doesn’t necessarily define you for life. High school is formative, but not conclusive. This is why you will never see an equivalent series set in, say, an antebellum plantation in the American South. Not only is that hierarchy way too close to home but (whether we admit it or not) we all know we haven’t yet escaped it.

    While most of us, sooner or later, graduate from high school, to escape the British class system you have to get out of Britain entirely (like Daniel Day-Lewis). Americans look at the confining roles imposed on the characters in their beloved Downton Abbey and tell themselves that if worse comes to worst, they can always emigrate.

    Laura Miller is the co-founder of and senior writer at salon.com


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    The naturalist Tim Dee has written an ambitious, affectionate investigation into the pastoral by way of four fields dotted around the globe.

    Four Fields
    Tim Dee
    Jonathan Cape, 288pp, £18.99

    A few years ago, Tim Dee wrote a magical memoir of birdwatching, a voyage both literary and airborne, The Running Sky. Now he returns with something far more ambitious: a loving investigation into the pastoral by way of four fields around the globe. It opens with cut grass scattered across the A14 and closes with grains of wheat nestled in cracks in tarmac: heraldic images for a work that situates itself on the troublesome boundary between the human and the natural.

    The first of Dee’s four fields is Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire, a few miles from his home. The fen has been contested ground for centuries, sometimes flooded and sometimes drained, sometimes planted and sometimes disgorging enigmatic relics – bog oaks, desiccated moles, the pickled body of a fenman standing bolt upright in a canoe.

    As Dee returns through the seasons, he disentangles some of the counterintuitive facts of the place, the way it has resisted being farmed and managed; the ways that human endeavours past and present have created habitats for species we might more commonly think of as wholly shy of humankind.

    The language is almost overwhelmingly rich and ripe, full of tumbling wordplay (a storm on the fens leaves him “shrunken in the wash”). Dee has a naturalist’s knack for close-range seeing (and smelling: the description of a little, foot-high scented tower above a dead shrew suggests an acutely precise olfactory system).

    Some passages have the miraculous quality of dreams – a description of swifts sleeping high above the earth, or of skating across frozen fens, the grass preserved in rippling waves beneath a sheet of ice.

    Sometimes these good earth dreams slip into nightmares. Out in the bush in southern Zambia, Dee encounters a river crossing where more than a hundred wildebeest have drowned: “the biggest uncooked sausage ever made”. Death stalks his fields, and even in the most bucolic settings he senses their cache of corpses, their scent of rot.

    Towards the end of the book, he travels to Chernobyl to assist two scientists in gathering grasshoppers from the nuclear exclusion zone. The writing that follows is among the most powerful and indelible about disaster I have ever encountered. Dee dismisses the notion that the wild is reclaiming this depopulated and abandoned place, describing the swallows with their feet on backwards and pine trees bare of twigs but displaying at the ends of their branches mad black balls of needles, as if, “at its dirty fingertips, the tree had grown its own wreaths”.

    This is a different order of death altogether: death of a sterile, permanent kind. And yet even here, Dee manages a kind of plainsong of despair. Regarding the piles of prams, lampshades and bikes in the abandoned Ukrainian village of Vesniane, he writes: “Here is our Scythian gold, our Roman silver, our cave paintings, our ghost shirts and dream-catchers, here all of it dreck and trash and the colour of old blood, our pigment gift to the world’s palette, our rust.” This is writing and thinking that leaves the parochial concerns of most of what we designate “nature writing” in the dust.

    One of the persistent tensions of the genre is how to handle the people in the landscape. Dee, thoughtful about the problems of the past historic, the caricatures of fen folk in moleskin gaiters romping through the tabulations of gentlemen-historians, runs into sticky ground on his third field, a contested stretch of Montana where the battle of the Little Bighorn was fought in 1876.

    It is a place to consider the colonial imperatives of farming and its costs, yet Dee seems baffled and unsettled by the spectacle of the dispossessed and disheartened Crow tribe and their tatty reservations. It’s a pity that such an attentive listener to all the birdcalls of the world chose to speak at greatest length to a part-Crow who doesn’t speak the tribal language and to a white academic “who knows more Crow lore and history than most Indians”, rather than considering the sense the surviving First People make of their own trials.

    During his week in Chernobyl, Dee was forbidden to take anything out; instead, he left a postcard of Wicken Fen in Prypiat, an abandoned city where the trees have taken over. On it, he wrote “Field One for Field Four”. Funny, but it’s that postcard that stayed with me. It seems to sum up both the best of this book and of our own busy work as a species, our capacity for sympathetic interest, the myriad sowings and seedings we have brought forth across the world. That, and the image of a flock of goldfinches, “like itinerant weavers flying their precious thread through the homespun, until the whole fen became a field of the cloth of gold”.

    This is virtuosic beyond the merely visual, its aesthetic power drawn from Dee’s sense of deep time, his ability to interweave the natural, historical and cultural into one dense and lovely tapestry.

    Olivia Laing is the author of “The Trip to Echo Spring” (Canongate, £20)


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  • 09/05/13--02:15: Long Range Forecast
  • A poem by Judy Brown.

    In deep old age I plan to potter in a garden flat
    just down the road, to stumble from room to room;

    or outside, patting the swollen trees, survivors of pollard
    and amputation – grown cactus-squat and cautious.

    My ankles will be the same: fat and pillowy, bone’s
    true story hidden beneath the soft anecdotage of fluid,

    a long time telling. People write books so quickly now.
    From mid-life I’ll be ready with tissues and paracetamol –

    small cures for the long haul. Menthol to chill the pulse
    points. Ginger for sickness at sea, and on land. 


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    Leo Robson reviews two new novels about the not-so-golden ages of Hollywood history.

    My Face for the World to See
    Alfred Hayes
    NYRB Classics, 135pp, £7.99

    Beautiful Ruins
    Jess Walter
    Viking, 340pp, £8.99

    The best-known single insight about Hollywood in a work of fiction comes on the first or second page – or, if you’re reading the old Penguin edition, with the Edmund Wilson foreword, over the first and second pages – of F Scott Fitzgerald’s very unfinished novel The Last Tycoon. The narrator, identified first as “the producer’s daughter” and only secondly as a Bennington junior in possession of a mind like a “kicking foetus”, says that though you can take Hollywood for granted or dismiss it with the contempt we reserve for things we don’t understand, it can be understood, “but only dimly and in flashes”.

    Fitzgerald’s own attempt to balance what the following sentence terms “the whole equation of pictures” ended up dimmer or blurrier, than he had anticipated, because – as Wilson put it, with the grim directness of his other novelist friend Vladimir Nabokov – he “died suddenly of a heart attack (21 December 1940)” at a point when he had not yet brought his material “finally into focus”. But if he didn’t manage that, he still left behind, along with the conclusively damning 70,000-word draft, a heap of notes and ruminations suggesting that he had identified the remaining ingredients necessary to fill out the picture, most importantly that of the “Actress”. “Keep her close,” he urged himself. “Never just use her name. Always begin with a mannerism.

    ” The figure of the actress – the leading lady with a countdown blasting in her head, the starlet waiting to replace her, the would-be starlet who ends up waiting tables or worse – gives far more depth and solidity to the idea of Hollywood as a field of tragedy than the producer whose early ideals lie shattered on the marble floor or the writer who traded his talent for a regular paycheque. There are various ways of being an actress in Hollywood, and they all involve distortion – and prostration. Rita Hayworth lamented that men went to bed with Gilda (her most celebrated role) but “wakened with me”, and even empowerment of the Sharon Stone variety amounts to the most circumscribed kind of control: objectification on your own terms.

    The writer Alfred Hayes went to Hollywood and never quite succeeded. He made uncredited contributions – along with several others – to one masterpiece, Nicholas Ray’s The Lusty Men, as well as working on some lesser Fritz Lang films, and he is now best known, to the extent that he is known at all, for his novels, including the tiny, pleasingly written My Face for the World to See, which has been reissued by NYRB Classics.

    Though narrated by a married writer with a taste for short chapters and a gift for reported speech (“She didn’t want to disturb, I was probably busy”), the novel reserves most of its pity for the suffering of a young divorcee whose introductory mannerism involves moving “carefully and gaily” over a stretch of sand before wading into the ocean with a sense of purpose. The writer saves her and then seduces her, but the sense of walking in someone else’s footsteps – perhaps several pairs – gives him heavy feet.

    Hayes’s withholding of names places the affair in the realm of archetype or at least stereotype – not knowing the difference between “protective” and “predatory” being the attribute of Hollywood Male, and allowing yourself to be exploited again and again that of Hollywood Female. Formally unemployed, the girl belongs, naturally, to what her stony-hearted observer calls “that loose category, an actress”.

    My Face for the World to See– the title refers to the ambition the actress started out with – was written in the mid-1950s, which suggests that it wasn’t only the combination of rheumy eyeballs and rotting-rose-tinted binoculars that prompted James Ellroy to portray the decade as a sewer in LA Confidential and White Jazz.

    In Hayes’s rendering, presumably derived from first-hand mental note-taking, Hollywood instils a feeling of “insatiety”. It’s a place where, the narrator reckons, people lie in bed “thinking with an intense, an inexhaustible, an almost raging passion of becoming famous if they weren’t already famous, and even more famous if they were”. This picture, which he partly dismisses as a product of “snobbery”, is corroborated by his fragile charge/prey, who believes that her every action is being watched by the bureaucratic wing of the film studios, as a kind of test of her fitness for stardom. We can see that her sanity has been destroyed by anorexia and alcohol. On the other hand, the book ends with the narrator in a bar, being looked at by “reasonably famous” eyes and smiled at by “reasonably famous” teeth, features that did not look “guilty of anything” – or at least that’s how they look to those who are prepared to take surfaces for depths, or who stand to benefit from the illusion.

    Jess Walter, in his frothy romantic comedy about roughly the same period – it starts in 1962 – is less interested in what Hollywood does to people than in what it claims people can do for themselves. One character leaves his family after watching Breakfast at Tiffany’s; another is tattooed with some go-for-it rhetoric from a Paul Newman movie.

    Nonetheless, Walter has chosen as his heroine an actress-of-sorts, a girl from Seattle who goes by the (made-up) name of Dee Moray and whose big break is a small role in the storm-tossed Burton-Taylor version of Cleopatra. (Introductory mannerism: “She wavered a moment in the boat’s stern, then extended a slender hand to grip the mahogany railing.”)

    In this Hollywood, people still lie about their age and treat stepping on other people as an effective means of ascent, but the would-be starlet gets away. She is sated by her tiny brush with fame.

    And so Walter’s novel, whatever its charm as a period-hopping, continent-clash comedy, fails in the first duty of fiction about Hollywood – to provoke a purgative bout of condemnation so that we can guiltlessly go on enjoying its products.

    Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman


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    The scientist Daniel M Davis has told the story of genetic compatibility - and the rejection that is its opposite - with great insight and decades of research. It's a field that may yield significant treasures in the decades to come.

    The Compatibility Gene
    Daniel M Davis
    Allen Lane, 256pp, £20

    “I am very rare but my wife is rather common.” This is not a sentence that would normally endear an author to you, let alone make you feel a little sorry for him. The thing is, it’s not great being exotic. Should Daniel M Davis get seriously ill, his chances of finding a transplant match are very bad. When he tells you that his wife is not one in a million but one in 100,000, you should feel good for her. Davis is one in four million, according to the genetic tests that the couple underwent. That’s very bad news, transplant-wise.

    This all comes down to what Davis terms the “compatibility genes”. They are the set of genes that determine the make-up of your immune system and make you who you are.

    We worry about where we came from. There is not a human civilisation on the planet that does not pay attention to its ancestors in some way. TV genealogy shows have probably amplified this trait, encouraging us to treasure our roots (or despair at them) in ever larger measure. So it’s no wonder we don’t cope well with the idea of organ transplantation: it messes with everything.

    A study carried out in Sweden demonstrates the problem. In interviews with patients who had received someone else’s kidney, almost all of the subjects said that they felt it was best not to know too much about the donor. For some irrational, inexplicable reason, we are psychologically sideswiped by the idea that someone else’s meat has been installed inside our own. Some patients even worried about worrying about it, expressing a fear that too much “brooding” over the donor could lead their bodies to reject the foreign tissue.

    We now know, thanks to a half-century of scientific sleuthing, that this isn’t true. Rejection of foreign bodies results from the activities of the compatibility genes. Davis’s enlightening book tells the extraordinary story of that discovery. As well as dealing with foreign tissue, the compatibility genes seem to influence our selection of biologically beneficial partners. It turns out that we look for complementary immune systems that enhance the chance of our offspring’s survival. Get it wrong at your peril: the compatibility genes are, it seems, frequently to blame in miscarriages. The contributions frommother and father have to be a good complementary pairing for a pregnancy to be successful. If Davis’s wife had chosen a more “common” man, she might have found herself with someone whose genes were too similar to her own, with adverse effects on the couple’s fertility. As Davis puts it, “Differences in our immune-system genes can influence who gets born.”

    Sadly, science has not yet given us ways to cope with these differences. The best you can do is try to find a partner who somehow smells right. Evolution’s finest innovation might be the nose: we use it to check whether someone else’s immune system is complementary to our own.

    Evolution is not perfect, however: given that as many as one in three pregnancies ends in miscarriage, cleary the smell is too subtle. Either that or we are all washing too thoroughly (or not doing enough investigative snogging).

    It is almost ironic that the scientists who laid the foundations of this kind of research also had coupling issues. The Nobel laureate biologist Peter Medawar’s work elucidating what causes the rejection of transplants was so intense that he told his wife that she had claim on his love but not his time (and that he would be fine with an open marriage). The Danish biologist and sadomasochism fan Niels Jerne had a string of affairs before his wife (who had her share of lovers) committed suicide; it was only later, suppressing his grief with a gruelling work schedule, that Jerne uncovered the protective powers of antibodies. The Austrian Karl Landsteiner discovered the vital distinctions we know as blood groups. He also lived with his mother until she died. When he married shortly after that, the new Mrs Landsteiner faced the nightly distraction of her mother-in-law’s death mask on the bedroom wall. To her credit, the couple did manage to have a child.

    Many more scientists are threaded through the pages of Davis’s thoughtful book and they all share one thing: the grinding heartbreak that is the slow progress of scientific discovery. It’s a heartbreak that Davis knows well; he is a leading figure in this subject. Though the science behind what causes our body to recognise itself and reject foreign material is more than 60 years old, he tells us, the conclusions we can draw from it are still fairly limited. Nonetheless, The Compatibility Gene is a fascinating, expertly told story of a field that may yield significant treasures in the decades to come.

    Michael Brooks is the New Statesman’s science columnist 


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    In a profile from the New Statesman archive, literary scholar and social critic William Walter Crotch remembers his days in Munich, and the "militant edition of charlie chaplin" he encountered on the streets and in the local bierkeller.

    This profile by the literary scholar and social critic William Walter Crotch (1874-1947) was first published in the NS of 29 July 1933. Hitler had become chancellor in January.

    The first time I heard the name of Adolf Hitler mentioned was shortly after the end of the war, when a man named Franz Xavier Huber, a veteran who had a leg shot away before Verdun in 1917, told me the stories of a curious fellow who had been in his regiment at the front. He was a garrulous chap, and, sitting in that same Bürgerbraü Keller in Munich (where in 1923 Hitler took his first plunge into revolutionary activities by firing off his army revolver at the ceiling and declaring the morrow would see him victor or dead although it saw him neither the one nor the other, but unscathed, a helter-skelter fugitive in the Bavarian hills), he used to tell tales tragic and humorous of his campaign experiences.

    The thing that had struck him about “Private Hitler” was his grandiloquence. He was neither popular nor the reverse with his fellows; they just smiled at him and his vague rambling speeches on everything in the world and out of it. He acquired the reputation of being what in the British Army is called “an old soldier”. That is, he showed distinct talent in avoiding disagreeable tasks, but he knew on which side his bread was buttered. He interested himself particularly in the important question of seeing the officer’s washing was done or doing it himself. This secured for him the good graces of the colonel, who removed him from the more constant dangers of the trenches and appointed him runner between regimental headquarters and the front line.

    These duties brought him frequently in contact with the men and he would sit for hours in a dug-out and hold forth on Socialism, of which it was evident he had only very hazy notions. Old Social Democrats used to laugh at him, but no one debated seriously with him. He could not brook contradiction and used to fly into terrible rages if anyone ventured a word of dissent. Though he got the Iron Cross of the second class, no one in the regiment ever looked upon Hitler as any sort of a hero; indeed they rather admired him for the skill with which he avoided hot corners. The regimental records contain not a line concerning an award of the Iron Cross of the first class to Hitler, though in latter years he has taken to wearing it prominently on his self-constructed uniform.

    In those days in Munich I lived in the Thiersh Strasse, and I frequently noticed in the street a man who vaguely reminded me of a militant edition of Charles Chaplin, owing to his characteristic moustache and his bouncing way of walking. He always carried a riding whip in his hand with which he used incessantly to chop off imaginary heads as he walked. He was so funny that I inquired from neighbours who he might be: most of them, owing to his Slav type, took him to be one of these Russian émigrés who abounded in Germany at that time, and they freely talked of his being probably a trifle mentally deranged. But my grocer told me it was a Herr Adolf Hitler from Braunau in Austria, and that he was leader of a tiny political group which called itself the “German National Socialist Workers Party”. He lived as a boarder in the apartment of a small artisan, wrote articles for an obscure paper called the Völkischer Beobachter, and orated in hole-and-corner meetings before audiences of a dozen or two. Out of curiosity I bought the paper once or twice, and found it a scatter-brained collection of wild anti-Jewish stories and articles interlarded with panegyrics on the Germanic race. My obliging grocer closed his information on Hitler by remarking that he frequently purchased things in his shop and was, despite his eccentric appearance, quite a pleasant fellow, though inclined to talk sixteen to the dozen about anything and everything.

    Some time later I became a frequent customer of a little wine saloon in the Schelling Strasse. The public in this inn was mostly composed of Bohemians, artists and art students, members of the staff of Simplicissimus, the satirical weekly; musicians and poetasters sat around of an evening and listened to Gulbransson or Thöny giving forth on art, politics and the price of a pound of meat. Discussions lasted far into the night, over tankards of beer and bottles of an excellent Chianti. Hitler was an almost daily visitor; he had, I learned, been a house painter in his early days in Vienna, but he was rather sore on the subject, and posed as an artist. He was very fond of airing his views on art and architecture, which, however, were not taken seriously by any of the artists who frequented the place.

    Hitler was often accompanied by one or two friends who, I was told, were members of his little political group. The most sensible of the band was a chemist named Gregor Strasser, a very sound fellow with whom I often spoke. Hitler’s closest friend at that time, however, seemed to be an ex-army captain named Roehm, who later became chief of the Storm Troops, while his friend, Baldur von Schirach, was entrusted with leadership of the “Hitler Youth”, the boy scout organisation of the National Socialist movement.

    One thing that struck me about Hitler was his extreme abstemiousness. He ate every night a dish of vegetables, and mineral water was his only drink. He never smoked. This reminds me of an amusing incident when Hitler became Chancellor. The German vegetarians have a central organ of their league, and this paper came out with flaming headlines:

    FIRST GREAT VICTORY OF GERMAN VEGETARIANS. HITLER BECOMES CHANCELLOR.

    Sometimes instead of regaling us with chaotic speeches, Hitler would sit for hours on end in front of his mineral water, staring into space, not uttering a word, and apparently quite oblivious of his surroundings. If on these occasions someone suddenly addressed him, he would start as if out of sleep, and stroke his forehead with his hand several times before coming back to reality.

    Apart from politics and art, Hitler’s chief topics of conversation were Italy and clairvoyance. He had never visited Italy, but had apparently read a great deal about it, and he would sometimes talk for half an hour on end about the glories of ancient Rome and the greatness of the Caesars. There was something about his talk that made one think of the prophets of the Old Testament: he spoke as if he believed himself to be inspired. The only thing that dispelled the illusion was his frequent use of words that are not found in the dictionary of a cultivated German.

    One day I remember a man came in who, for the price of a plate of soup, read hands and told fortunes. Hitler retired with the soothsayer into a corner and spent a whole hour with him in earnest conference. When he got back among us, he turned with anger upon a student who had made a slighting remark about clairvoyance, and launched out upon an eloquent defence of occultism of every kind, and especially of astrology.

    He made a confidant, too, of a Jewish charlatan named Steinschneider who had taken to himself the name of Hanussen, and consulted him frequently. Hanussen, who subsequently founded and ran a weekly newspaper on astrology, devoted to indirect propaganda for Hitler, became for a few weeks after Hitler’s accession to power almost as important a factor in Germany as Rasputin had been in Russia. But his end was a tragic one. He was found murdered in a field in the environs of Berlin. Accounts vary regarding his death. However, the incident does not appear to have shaken Hitler’s faith in astrology, and one of Hanussen’s chief rivals, a man named Mücke, has been appointed by Hitler “Federal Commissary for Occultism”. This, I believe, is the first time in modern ages that a state has officially recognised soothsaying and turned it into a government department.

    But there is one extraordinary feature about Hitler’s faith in the occult which gives rise to intriguing speculation. As everyone knows, he has adopted the Swastika as the emblem not only of his party but of the State. But curiously enough this Swastika is reversed, and anyone acquainted with Eastern beliefs knows that this is to be regarded with positive horror. An inverted Swastika is indicative not of endless life but of the flood and flame of life leading to a violent destruction. Did Hitler know this when he foisted it upon the German nation? Is the reversed Swastika just another sign of the man’s half-baked conception of things? Or is this a last vestige of the irony of his political faith?

    Hitler was not without devoted adherents in the “Osteria Bavaria”. Some students became seized with a sort of hero-worship regarding him, and hung on to every word he said with wrapt attention. But his chief admirers were the two waitresses, buxom Bavarian wenches, who listened openmouthed to him and danced attendance on him in a way that formed the subject of many jokes among the habitués of the place.

    Hitler’s relations with women indeed are a strange and obscure chapter. I saw a great deal of him at that time, and I can certify that he was in these matters as abstemious as in regard to food and drink. The only woman he seemed to care for at all was the lady to whose villa in the hills he fled after his inglorious collapse in November, 1923. He used to correspond with her a great deal and spent frequent week-ends at her place. Latterly he is said to have fallen in love with Winifred Wagner, but I can hardly imagine the Hitler of 1921 in love.

    Another thing that struck me was the man’s utter incapacity to deal with important details. When he spoke of Italy, or the German race, or occultism, or the Jews, his talk was a succession of vague generalities, couched in attractive if flowery language, but showing in every case either complete ignorance or at least complete contempt for detail.

    Though he insisted in season and out of season on the greatness of “pure Germanism”, I never met a German who was so entirely un-German. His speech, his thought, his outlook were far more Slav than Teutonic. He loved everything foreign while he denounced it. His race theories came from the Frenchman Gobineau and the English renegade Houston Chamberlain. His famous phrase “the Third Reich” was the invention of the Dutchman Moeller van den Bruck. The party salute was an Elizabethan stage convention—a subterfuge adopted by actors to imitate Romans. His regimental standards were a pale imitation of Roman eagles. His uniforms are anything but Germanic. They are a sort of cocktail of French, Austrian and English uniforms with most of the bad points to all three.

    But I will say this, as the result of these long evenings spent with him: he was, and probably still is, passionately, almost ferociously, sincere in all he says and does, even when it appears hypocritical and insincere.

    This article appears in “The New Statesman Century”, our 250-page anthology of the best and boldest writing from the first 100 years of the NS. To order a copy visit: newstatesman.com/century 


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    The whole thing emerges with very little credit.

    Today's NAO report into Universal Credit reveals an overambitious timetable, a lack of a detailed blueprint, inadequate supplier management, and confusion over what constitutes an agile approach.

    The title for today's hard-hitting National Audit Office (NAO) report into Universal Credit is "early progress". "Progress" might be stretching things a bit far. After months of the Department for Work & Pensions (DWP) insisting that Universal Credit was still on track, the NAO report confirms that there really is no smoke without fire. The reports that were emerging about the state of the Universal Credit project really were true. And it really was that bad.

    But unlike most "IT disaster" reports where vendors are routinely blamed for their failures, this report paints a different picture: one of weak programme management, over-optimistic timescales and a lack of openness about progress, not to mention some Whitehall friction between DWP and the Cabinet Office.

    According to the NAO, DWP's programme for the national rollout of Universal Credit from October 2013, was "ambitious" given that the detailed policy would not be approved by Parliament until 2012. In fact, if it adopted its traditional "waterfall" approach to programme management - where systems are developed after policy is set - then rollout would be expected in 2015. But with October 2013 set in stone, that timetable itself created pressure on DWP to act quickly and meant that progress had to be managed tightly.

    But instead of adopting its traditional waterfall approach, DWP chose to go with an "agile" plan, using the iterative and collaborative method of project management which has become popular and indeed has been recommended by the Cabinet Office for the development of public sector IT systems. But surely you wouldn't adopt such an approach for the first time on a critical project with an ambitious timescale? DWP did.

    What was worse, in the NAO's view, throughout its development of Universal Credit, DWP has lacked a detailed view of how Universal Credit is meant to work. The NAO suggests that the department was warned repeatedly about its lack of a detailed "blueprint", "architecture" , or "target operating model" for Universal Credit and although throughout 2011 and the first half of 2012 it made some progress, the concerns were not addressed as expected.

    By mid-2012, that meant that DWP could not agree what security would be needed to protect claimant transactions and was unclear about how Universal Credit would integrate with other programmes. That culminated in the Cabinet Office rejecting the department's proposed IT hardware and networks.

    It is easy to imagine from that development how the Universal Credit team acquired what the NAO describes as a "fortress" mentality within the programme, and a "good news" reporting culture that limited open discussion of risks and stifled challenge because DWP had ring-fenced the Universal Credit team and allowed it to work with a large degree of independence.

    As well as a lack of transparency and challenge, the Universal Credit team also had inadequate financial control over supplier spending - there was limited understanding of how spending related to progress and insufficient review of contract performance - and ineffective departmental oversight, which meant that DWP has never been able to measure its progress effectively against what it is trying to achieve. That has led to continual problems with governance, changed governance structures and during the "resetting" of Universal Credit in early 2013, the complete suspension of the programme board.

    What all this means for the Universal Credit programme, the NAO says, is that DWP will have to scale back its original delivery ambition and reassess what it must do to roll out Universal Credit to claimants. That means revising the programme's timing and scope, particularly around online transactions and automation. That in turn means that Universal Credit will be more expensive and complex to administer than originally intended, while delays to rollout are likely to reduce the expected benefits of reform.

    Although according to the project's leader Howard Shiplee, the Universal Credit team will be working together with the Government Digital Service to "take the best of the existing system and make improvements", the NAO suggests that DWP does not yet know to what extent its new IT systems will support national rollout. £34m worth of new IT assets - amounting to 17 per cent - have already been written off, and current pathfinder systems have limited function and do not allow claimants to change details of their circumstances online as originally intended.

    The good news is that the problems of Universal Credit are belatedly beginning to come to light, which means they can start to be solved, even if that means the project's scope and timetable have to be changed, to project managers' and politicians' embarrassment.

    They say the first part of getting help is to admit you have a problem, though I'm still not sure DWP has yet realised the extent of its Universal Credit addiction, and the treatment needed.

    Its optimistic statement following the publication of the NAO report says, "We are committed to delivering it [Universal Credit] on time by 2017 and within budget.

    "Under this new leadership we are making real progress and we have a plan in place that is achievable and safe. The NAO itself concludes that Universal Credit can go on to achieve considerable benefits for society."

    This piece first appeared here


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    Alice O'Keeffe's "Squeezed Middle" column.

    I lift the duvet and sink my aching limbs into clean, crisp white sheets. Around me, everything is quiet. Not the kind of quiet that you get in our house, which is laden with the knowledge that within two hours it will definitely be shattered by baffling, implacable screams of red-faced outrage. This is real quiet. It’s-going-to-stayquiet quiet.

    Aaaaaaah. I close my eyes and think about floating naked in a tropical whirlpool, clutching some kind of delicious cocktail. Am I in heaven? No. I’m at my friend Hannah’s house. But it might as well be heaven. Everything in Hannah’s house is clean. Everything is white. Everything is in the right place. Most importantly, I don’t have to deal with any of it. It is not my responsibility.

    I am here on Dr Ibrahim’s orders, because if I don’t get some sleep soon I will pose a danger to myself and others. She has instructed me to leave the baby with Curly while I go and spend the night elsewhere. Hannah, one of my dearest and oldest friends, not only offered her spare room but also threw in a Chinese takeaway for dinner. She is by nature a person who restores order to a disordered world.

    It is a measure of how desperate Curly is for me to be sane again that he happily agreed to this arrangement. In fact, he packed my bag for me and practically booted me out of the house. “Why don’t you stay for two nights, hon?”

    The way things have been going recently, he would probably be pretty chuffed if I never came back.

    I open one eye. On the floor by my bed is a pair of white, fluffy slippers. They are not mine. They are Hannah’s “guest slippers”. I’d never heard of guest slippers before, but I love them so much, it brings a tear to my eye. I don’t even want to wear them. Just knowing they are there, that someone has gone out of their way to bring about my happiness and comfort, makes me feel as warm and fluffy as they are.

    Why don’t I have guest slippers? We aren’t exactly overwhelmed with guests in the slightly-too-small flat, which is just as well, because the only place for a visitor to sleep would be on the floor underneath the dining table, surrounded by Lego.

    But the question is more profound than that. Hannah and I grew up together. We have similar backgrounds. We even have similar jobs. How have our lives turned out so differently in this, it suddenly seems to me, quite fundamental respect? Is it just happenstance? Or is there a part of me, deep down inside, that doesn’t actually want guest slippers?

    Although half of my psyche longs for a calm, adult respectability, is there another, devilish part of me that delights in uncertainty and chaos?

    I feel tantalisingly close to some kind of epiphany, but before it arrives a huge, white wave of sleep sweeps over me. I dive gratefully into its heart, and let it bear me away to a distant, longed-for shore.


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    What should one drink with a steak? The answer isn't always obvious.

    Restaurants in Britain came about when, shortly after 1789, a bunch of French chefs found themselves unemployed, without notice or pay-off, and crossed the Channel. The egalitarian impulse that did for their aristocratic employers took a while to gain traction but, 200-odd years later, almost everyone eats out, although there are certainly social divisions in what they eat and where – and their beverage options are rarely up to my undemocratic standards.

    So, dinner is complicated. My wine collection is composed of everything I like to drink and is free at the point of access. Balanced against this are an adventurous gastronomic spirit and a suspicion that guillotining is preferable to washing up.

    The solution is to bring my own, but good-quality BYOs are rarer than cows’ fangs in this great country of ours. I therefore deem it considerate of the Hawksmoor restaurants to transform themselves into BYOs every Monday, offering corkage at a fiver a bottle.

    Hawksmoor steak is superb and I am part Aussie, which means my idea of a vegetarian meal is one where you get side dishes with your barely cooked cow. I have nothing against its wine list, either, though it has never had the benefit of my palate at its best on account of its marmalade Martini – an elixir that deserves a column to itself and will probably get one.

    The joy of a Monday BYO policy is that it transforms a depressing day – one so far from the next weekend’s indulgence that foolish folk feel the need to compound its miseries with temporary teetotalism – into one where I get to drink whatever I want with great steak, someone else deals with the dishes and the meal even meets my definition of vegetarian dining because of the fabulous triple-cooked chips.

    There’s still one problem, however: what do I want to drink with it? To some extent it depends on the cut – tannic wines slice deftly through fattier meat – but only to some extent, as steak is a forgiving dinner companion. Most reds with a bit of heft will partner decently with a hunk of good rare beef. (If you don’t think good beef should be eaten rare, we probably won’t agree on much.)

    This, however, is a hypothesis begging to be tested, and so four hungry women convene at Hawksmoor Guildhall with seven bottles, which seems about right to me. “Everybody’s going to judge us,” mutters Helen, and so they do: judge us and find their own dinners wanting. Our waiter informs us that people keep asking if they can have what we’re having. It’s like that scene in When Harry Met Sally, but with better beverages.

    We don’t try Bordeaux or Burgundy – both fine steak matches but there wouldn’t be room on the table. Two Argentinian Malbecs work nicely: Susana Balbo Malbec 2010 is fine and spicy, full of cinnamon and blackberries; its little sister, the Anubis (also by Balbo) is a cheapish peoplepleaser, soft and plush as purple velvet. It used to be in Tesco and I cried when they delisted it.

    Argentina’s steaks are legendary and Malbec is the locals’ choice, but Hawksmoor’s beef is British and, call me a purist (go on, please), but I find these wines, delicious as they are, slightly too soft and rounded for cool-climate meat.

    When first opened, without food, Jean-Luc Colombo Crozes Hermitages Les Gravières 2010 feels a bit thin and acidic – a stingy wine. But show it a steak and that thinness becomes a fine, peppery flavour, and the acid melts as the tannins take hold, sharpening their knives and getting to work. Chimney Rock Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, from Napa Valley, was another wine in need of a decanter: given a bit of air and a lot of cow, it was delightful.

    Our conclusion, as we waddled into the night, is that steak is as accommodating as the animal it comes from. So pick your cut and choose your region – and if you’re eating at Hawksmoor, I’ll wish you bon appétit. You’ll surely need it.

    Next week: Nature


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    Syrian refugees could soon account for 30% of Lebanon's population. Its people fear it will fall back into yet another conflict.

    As the Syria civil war shows no signs of abating, the hospitality of countries absorbing Syrian refugees is progressively sinking them into crisis.

    "My crime is that I am a mother to my sons," Yalda said. We were sitting in the old and crumbling outhouse she calls home near Saadneyil, central Lebanon, when she told me her story. I had made my visit to the region to see for myself what the civil war was doing to its people, and I was shocked by what I saw. After her second son died in the Syria civil war, Yalda travelled with the remaining members of her family from Idlib, near Homs, to cross the border with fake identification papers. They now reside on the outskirts of a makeshift refugee settlement. Her husband has been forced to work through his severe back injury and none of her remaining three children are in education. They struggle daily to make ends meet.

    While the current humanitarian crisis in Syria has been highly publicised – and rightly so – the spill over effect into neighbouring states, such as Lebanon, has gone largely underreported by the media. With no official refugee camps for the Syrian refugees, further pressure has been placed on these host communities. I saw firsthand the sheer devastation this crisis has caused Syrians and Lebanese alike, with stories like Yalda’s echoed across the country.

    In the past two years, more than half a million Syrian refugees have fled to Lebanon. This number is expected to increase to one million by this Christmas. Around 4,000 refugees cross the border every week into a country half the size of Wales. This means 30% of the population in Lebanon could be refugees by the end of the year, compared to 0.3% of the population in the UK. This is the equivalent of 15 million refugees seeking refuge in the United Kingdom. I cannot imagine how we would begin to cope.

    On my first day I visited an informal settlement of Syrian refugees with international children’s charity World Vision on the outskirts of a town in the Bekka Valley. The horror of the situation there is all too apparent. Hundreds of refugee families are living in dozens of makeshift tents in unsanitary conditions. As more and more refugees arrive to this camp and thousands like it, it has becoming impossible to maintain any semblance of normality. Rubbish and food scraps are collected irregularly from the overstretched local government, causing further unsanitary conditions for the refugees and their Lebanese neighbours. The work that NGOs and UN agencies are carrying out to address this is vital. Recently, World Vision has implemented WASH (Water and Sanitation Hygiene) projects in refugee camps, providing much needed toilet and shower facilities and water filtration devices.

    It was just outside this community where I first met Yalda and her family. During our meeting I was struck by the resourcefulness of her three children and the senseless waste of their potential. The eldest, Sabeen, had planned to continue her studies at a prestigious Syrian University but was unable to complete her final year of study. The youngest, a boy of fourteen, was forced to work as a mechanic and take on the mantle his elder brothers had presumably once held. However, the child that struck me most was 16-year-old Fayzeh, who had dreamt of becoming a journalist before she was forced to leave her home and flee to a foreign country. This assertive, confident girl told me she had felt the need to burn all of her writings in Syria through fear they would be found by the Assad regime. She said that although still a child, the civil war had forced her to grow beyond her years. She told me about the horrors she and her family had faced living in Syria, of the senseless murder of her friends, family and neighbours.

    She put in writing what was too difficult for her to say out loud: "I am a Syrian girl from Homs; Homs, the victim which has tasted the bitterness of life; Homs, bereaved of its children; Homs, the widow, the orphan; Homs which was violated". She wrote about her grief, the loss of her brothers and how her land had been abducted "I will follow in the steps of my brothers, the hero martyrs, who refused to surrender their land and their honour to those who wanted to rape it". What struck me were her perseverance, her attachment to her country and her desire to survive: "I did not give up and I will not give up".

    Tragic stories like Fayzeh’s are all too often heard up and down the country. Tens of thousands of refugee children have had no education since leaving Syria. Lebanese schools are struggling to cope with the influx and many children have been unable to find a place. Aid agencies like World Vision have attempted to fill the gap through Accelerated Learning Programmes, which offer refugee children a three month burst of intensive education. But funding for this is also scarce. It is crucial that the UK government leads the way by increasing funding to NGOs and the international community so that these children can again return to education and reach their full potential. This present situation does need to be their reality.

    Witnessing firsthand the suffering of Syrian refugees in Lebanon and the impact their arrival is having on Lebanese host communities; it became clear to me that greater assistance is urgently needed to prevent destabilising the country and its precariously balanced system of sectarian politics. Lebanon and the Lebanese have done a commendable job in hosting Syrian refugees. However, the situation is unsustainable and their continuing generosity is coming under strain, with reported incidents of intra-communal violence on the rise. The aid required under the new UN plan is $1.3bn by the end of this year for Lebanon alone.

    This enormous amount will undoubtedly be difficult to raise, but ignoring Lebanon and leaving the country to continue on the same path will have dire consequences. Beirut is a confident and buoyant capital with glittering sky scrapers and scenic harbours lined with yachts, but in the outskirts of the city and across the country there is a real underlying fear that this country, a country which should be the jewel in the Middle East’s crown, a country where Sunnis, Shias, Alawites and Christians all live side by side, will fall back into yet another conflict. It is the children like Fayzeh, brimming with potential, who will be the ones to suffer if we allow this to happen.

    Rushanara Ali is speaking at a fringe on Syria on Monday the 23rd September at 17:30 in the secure zone at Labour party conference. The event is in partnership with Islamic Relief. 


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    Claire Lowdon on Charlotte Mendelson's humorous new novel, a family drama which suffers from plausibility issues.

    Almost English
    Charlotte Mendelson
    Mantle, 288pp, £16.99
     
    Charlotte Mendelson’s four novels – which are all about families – share many family resemblances. They satirise oddball minorities: Oxford academics, London Jews, English public school children, Hungarian expats. An overarching theme is coming of age, or failing to. There is a Dickensian love of caricature and plot and an elaborate prose style to match (“modernised” by the exclusive use of the present tense). Most of the action takes place inside the heads of the main characters, who guard terrible secrets from their loved ones. As in Dickens, the comedy comes with a sting, a poignant counterpoint to all the rollicking social satire. Or, at least, that’s the idea.
     
    Almost English revolves around a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship. The swotty Marina Farkas has left Ealing Girls’ for Combe Abbey, a minor public school in Dorset that has recently started taking girls in the sixth form. She is friendless and homesick but unable to tell her mother, Laura. In London, Laura pines for Marina, longing for the smell of her hair. Desperate not to worry her daughter, she rewrites her letters “until nothing she wants to say is left”.
     
    Like Daughters of Jerusalem (2003) and When We Were Bad (2007), Almost English opens at a party with a bang. Mendelson excels at group scenes and at distilling the essence of a subclass. The rare breed under observation here is the Hungarian émigré: “Their bags contain poppy-seed pastries as long as your forearm; velvet-packed pralines, smuggled by fur-wrapped pensioners on the overnighter from Berne.” It is the 80th birthday of Marina’s grandmother Rozsi Farkas, who lives with her sisters, Zsuzsi and Ildi, in west London. Thirteen years ago, Rozsi’s son, Peter, abandoned Laura and Marina; now they, too, live in the “Vest-minstaircourt” basement flat. The three stylish old ladies have a mysterious past in Hungary. Hidden family intrigue surfaces when Marina befriends Guy Viney, the son of a TV historian.
     
    Combe Abbey is well drawn and the locus of much of the novel’s humour. Extracts from the school’s almanac evoke the uncarpeted, echoing boredom of British boarding school life: “Countryman Society talk by Mr Kendal: ‘Forestry: an Ancient Craft’, Old Library, 7:30pm.” Then there is the jubilant cruelty of boys unused to co-education, rating the girls and posting the scores on the house noticeboards. At Combe, you are nothing without a nickname but be careful what you wish for. It’s all right for the beautiful Marie-Claire van Dere (“Vanderwear”); less so for the ugly Sarah Molle (“Anal Mole”).
     
    Mendelson is good on teenage romance. At first Marina barely notices Guy: “His maleness is irrelevant, like a dog’s.” They fall into a queasy relationship, separated by the “sixinch rule” at school, taking advantage of their freedom on weekends out. Marina is unconvinced but goes along with it anyway, enduring “the questing way that his lips met hers in the ticket queue”.
     
    When the humour flops, the problem is exaggeration. Marina’s visit to the Viney country pile is hammed up, Guy’s snooty 17-year-old sister uttering such improbabilities as, “One becomes so protective . . .” and sneering at Marina for failing to dress for dinner. More troublesome are the gear changes from funny to serious. Mendelson’s first book, Love in Idleness (2001), was saturated with overwriting; since then the habit has been curbed but not cured. A small sample: “Down she sinks into the seas of self-pity, bitter waves of misery whacking her on the head”; “The only way to live apart from one’s child is to shut up one’s heart in a metal box with chains and rust and padlocks.” Houdini was Hungarian, after all.
     
    Both Love in Idleness and Daughters of Jerusalem involve characters who self-harm. In When We Were Bad, Frances Rubin ex - periences obsessive-compulsive disorder as an adolescent; in Almost English, it’s Marina who suffers from OCD. Every few chapters, Laura casually contemplates suicide. Often, the psychology fails to convince; disorders are being co-opted for instant gravitas.
     
    Issues with plausibility make for a frustrating read. Guy attends the Hungarian party, so why is he later surprised to learn that Marina is part-Hungarian? There are too many of these inconsistencies. Tension mounts in the crudest of ways. “Then everything changes,” we are told on page 63. On page 77: “Everything has changed. She does not know this.” On page 115: “Much, much later . . . she wonders if this was the moment when she chose the interesting path through the forest, where trouble lay in wait.” The start is promising: you are intrigued by the larger-than-life characters and their already tangled web. Yet Mendelson heaps on the motivations and plot twists until the teetering pile threatens to collapse.
     
    Asked if she bases her characters on people she knows, she once replied: “It’s much more fun inventing characters because you can get them to do what you want.” Perhaps, but only within reason – even in the comic novel. If you are writing in the realist tradition, you can only exaggerate so far.
     
    Claire Lowdon is the assistant editor of Areté
     

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    Reports of the death of popular economics turn out to have been greatly exaggerated, as two new books by Edmund Phelps, Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, make clear.

    Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much 
    Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir 
    Allen Lane, 304pp, £20

    Mass Flourishing: How Grass-Roots Innovation Created Jobs, Challenge and Change 
    Edmund Phelps
    Princeton University Press, 392pp, £19.95

    1. Eighteen months ago, I attended a conference on the crisis facing economics. Its title posed a blunt question: “Are graduate economists fit for purpose?” That it was sponsored by two of the largest employers of professional economists in the country – the Bank of England and the Government Economic Service – suggested that their polite answer was no.

    There was worse to come. The conference heard that the teaching of economics at universities had been in decline for more than two decades. In 1992, the government’s Research Assessment Exercise indicated that there were 60 fully fledged university economics departments. By 2001 the number had fallen by a third to 41, and by 2008 to only 35. It seemed that not only were employers no longer confident of the value of modern economics, but students did not want to study it – and the government had given up funding it.

    Yet we all knew there was something that didn’t quite add up about this dismal picture. Whatever problems might be plaguing economics at the universities, a quick glance at the bestseller lists shows that public interest in the subject is in ruder health than ever. Books such as Freakonomics by Steven D Levitt and Stephen J Dubner, Tim Harford’s The Undercover Economist and Ha-Joon Chang’s 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism are among the most popular nonfiction titles of the past decade. What is going on? How is the apparent death spiral of economics at universities to be squared with the enormous resurgence of interest in the subject among the general public? Anyone who wants to know the answer could do much worse than turn to the two books under review.

    2.Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much is by two of the coming men in US economics, Sendhil Mullainathan of Harvard University and Eldar Shafir of Princeton. The book is representative of a growing library aimed at popularising the new school of “behavioural economics”, in which the strict assumptions concerning individual rationality built into old-school microeconomics are jettisoned in favour of a more realistic understanding of individual decision-making derived from experimental psychology. As Daniel Kahneman, a winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics (who, like Shafir, is a psychologist by training), likes to say, traditional economics studied how individuals would act if they were rational; behavioural economics studies how they actually do.

    In Scarcity, Mullainathan and Shafir set out to summarise their research on what they believe to be one of the central lessons of modern psychology for economics. This is that there is a generic mindset associated with the experience of scarcity, of money, of time, of friends; indeed, of more or less anything. This mindset, they argue, has its own logic, which has to be understood before a vast array of economic, business and personal problems can be properly addressed.

    The authors’ basic argument is as follows. Experimental psychology has shown that the experience of scarcity produces both good and bad results. The good result is “focus”: increased attention and therefore potentially increased effectiveness. Who hasn’t been in a meeting, for example, which was directionless and unproductive until everyone realised that there was only 15 minutes left and everyone got down to business?

    This effect of scarcity can also be bad, however. In that case, it should be called not “focusing” but “tunnelling”, in order to emphasise how, as well as concentrating attention on one objective, it draws it away from others that may be just as (or more) important.

    The problem with tunnelling is that it shrinks the mind’s capacity to do anything else. It reduces cognitive capacity, or what Mullainathan and Shafir colloquially call “bandwidth”. That then creates a vicious circle – because operating with reduced bandwidth makes it more difficult to escape the circumstances that induced scarcity in the first place. A poor single mother experiences scarcity of money and time; therefore she is constantly stressed out; therefore she can’t think straight about financial matters or planning; therefore she fails to get a better job, or even to register for her benefits on time; therefore she sinks further into poverty and experiences even greater scarcity, and so on.

    A criticism often made of behavioural economics is that many of its findings sound suspiciously like statements of the bleeding obvious. Even Kahneman likes to recall how he and his long-time collaborator Amos Tversky used to joke to one another that they hadn’t discovered a single thing that their grandmothers didn’t know. Those who take this view will find much grist to their mill in a book that serves up “discoveries” such as how poor people get more stressed than rich people do when presented with a large and unexpected bill, or that it is harder to sleep well when you have things on your mind.

    Though there is some truth in these objections, I think they miss the merits of the approach. It was John Maynard Keynes who mused, “If economists could manage to get themselves thought of as humble, competent people on a level with dentists, that would be splendid.” What he meant was that it is easy in economics to come up with vast and abstract theories but very difficult to come up with useful, practical solutions.

    A distinctive claim of behavioural economics is that it generates practical ideas for public policy and personal conduct. For the behavioural economists, there is no more sitting alone in dusty faculty offices working out hard problems with nothing but a pencil and a bit of algebra – all in the name of knowledge for its own sake. On the model of proper scientists, they work in “labs”, leading “research groups” and collecting empirical data from randomised experiments run across many continents, all with the aim of informing “evidence-based policy”.

    Hence, in the last third of Scarcity, Mullainathan and Shafir present a variety of principles for the design of aid and welfare programmes, for management practices in business and for various kinds of personal decisions and habits. One such principle is that anti-poverty programmes should be more tolerant of faults by the recipients (because, being under stress, they are likely to make mistakes): so, for instance, deadlines for registration should not be too strictly observed. Another is that, because bandwidth per se is an important determinant of poverty, programmes should value it and be designed to build it, or at least make sure not to tax it. So, to all the other benefits of providing convenient childcare should be added the benefit that mothers have a chance to think clearly about whatever else they are doing. These ideas make sense and they sound implementable.

    I was less persuaded by the claim that the results of this fascinating research agenda constitute “a radical reconceptualisation of poverty”. I fear that this might be an example of the tunnelling the authors do so much to warn against. Scarcity certainly convinced me that it is important to understand that indigent rag traders in India experience debilitating stress from constant threats by the moneylenders on whom they depend for working capital and that schemes to alleviate this would be highly worthwhile development interventions. Yet that should not distract us from the dominance of the cultural, social and political roots of poverty – the iniquities of caste, political disenfranchisement and the failings of the judicial system – and students of development economics will, I hope, continue to learn also about old-fashioned ideas such as land reform and political revolution.

    However, Mullainathan and Shafir never claim to have all the answers. They style their book as “an invitation to read about a science in the making” and it is indeed a succinct, digestible and often delightfully witty introduction to an important new branch of economics.

    3. For all Keynes’s criticism of economists’ overweening ambitions, he also believed in the value of big-picture thinking. He taught that economics is “a moral science and not a natural one” and that the good economist should therefore be a “mathematician, historian, statesman [and] philosopher – in some degree”. As such, he would have been equally in favour of another branch of economics that has thrived in the past decade and a half – one that operates at the opposite end of the spectrum to the behavioural and experimental economists. Its exponents collaborate not with psychologists but with historians and political scientists and they have returned to the macro-historical questions of classical political economy; above all, to Adam Smith’s ur-question of why some countries are richer than others. This field, too, has encountered no shortage of interest from the general public, with the popularity of books such as Gregory Clark’s A Farewell to Alms and Daron Acemoglu’s and James Robinson’s Why Nations Fail, published last year.

    Mass Flourishing by Edmund Phelps, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, is recognisably representative of this genre – yet highly unusual, both for the breadth of its scope and for the manner in which it confounds ideological categorisation. It begins by arguing that while material wealth is important, what defines a truly prosperous society is the degree to which its citizens achieve the intangible benefit of living a good life. But what is a “good life”?

    Phelps traces a consistent, humanist conception of this from Aristotle to Thomas Jefferson: a life in which the individual is able to grow, to realise herself and, indeed, to create her human identity through her search for knowledge and understanding and the exercise of her creative faculties. To be able to lead such a life is to flourish – and when most people in a society are able to do so, we have arrived at the book’s first core concept: mass flourishing.

    Historically speaking, Phelps further argues, very few economies have provided the conditions for such mass flourishing. Those that have succeeded have been characterised by the second core concept of his book: economic modernity. It was only once Renaissance humanism, Enlightenment rationalism and baroque vitalism had mixed together to produce the culture of modernity that economies oriented to experimentation, innovation and self-improvement at the grassroots level evolved. The result was a century-and-a-half-long golden age – from around 1825 to roughly 1975 – in countries such as the United States and Britain that developed “modern economies”.

    These modern economies were different, Phelps argues, not only from the static economies of the medieval world but also, crucially, from the numerous capitalist and materially prosperous economies of today that are no longer or never were properly modern. Just to be a dynamic economy – that is, to be open to social change and capable of rapidly adopting new technologies, as continental Europe and Japan were after the Second World War – is not enough. Nor is it sufficient to be a nation that makes significant advances in science or technology, as the Soviet Union did. It is the economic culture of modernity that leads to grass-roots innovation and so the self-realisation that matters. That and that alone is the philosopher’s stone.

    It is easy to be suspicious of an argument as wide-ranging as this – and, summarised in this way, Phelps’s thesis may sound simplistic and his historical claims naive. His unequivocal approval of modernity might not be to everyone’s taste: after all, the mindset of modernity was the backdrop to the nightmare of Kafka’s Trial as well as the humanity of Joyce’s Ulysses and was responsible for the delusions of Italian futurists and Soviet communists as well as the Whiggish optimism of Bloomsbury and the Fabians. I, too, was sceptical when I started Mass Flourishing. Yet, overall, I found that the more I read of it, the more my expectations were confounded and the more I found myself thinking that its basic thesis has a great deal of truth to it.

    So ashamed was I of my initial assessment, once I had finished reading through Phelps’s fascinating, versatile and profound book, that I was put in mind of those immortal lines by Mark Twain: “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years . . .”

    4. So what do these two very different books have to tell us about the elusive crisis in economics? The answer is that they are excellent examples of two things. The first is the huge variety of fascinating new thinking (and new applications of old thinking) that many leading economists have been engaged in over the past 15 years. The second is that the pioneers in these new fields have curiously succeeded better at communicating directly to the general public through popular writing than they have in convincing the rest of their profession to reorient what is taught by economics degree courses and how.

    Fortunately, that conference’s pronouncement of the death of economics has turned out to have been greatly exaggerated. The Financial Times recently reported that more than 26,000 students took economics at A-level this year, which represents a bigger year-on-year growth than in any other subject and a 50 per cent increase from 2007. The ongoing economic crisis is no doubt an important factor in stimulating their interest. Yet the huge impact of efforts by innovative academic economists to bring their subject steeped in history, psychology and the real world to the general public has surely played a critical role, too. It only remains for orthodox curricula to catch up.

    Felix Martin is an NS columnist. His book “Money” (Bodley Head , £20) has just been longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award


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    Where once to be called talented or a "natural" was the highest praise, today sportsmen have to pretend success has nothing to do with innate ability - is it time to think again?

    The Sports Gene: What Makes
    the Perfect Athlete
    David Epstein
    Yellow Jersey, 352pp, £16.99
     
    Sport has done a swift U-turn on the idea of talent. To be called talented or a “natural” was once the highest praise. It tapped into the ideal of gentlemanly effortlessness. Many athletes went along with the lazy labels attached to them, and “naturals” – despite the casual image they presented to the world – worked a lot harder at their craft than they let on.
     
    That situation has now reversed. Today’s sportsmen have to pretend that their success can be explained entirely by hard work and has nothing to do with innate ability. During the BBC’s coverage of the London Olympics, the athletics pundits accidentally stumbled into a conversation about genes and talent. Realising that they were veering too close to the truth, they quickly retreated to safety, talking about “hard yards” and “tireless effort”, presumably to avoid accusing a champion of being blessed with good genes and thus robbing him or her of the ultimate modern accolade: victory earned purely through exertion and suffering.
     
    “Talent” has become a dirty word. How that happened tells us a great deal about the ways in which our preferred myths have changed. A plethora of self-help books has tried to eliminate the idea of talent altogether, replacing it with the speculative theory that greatness follows simply from 10,000 hours of dedicated practice. Talent, in this analysis, is an old wives’ tale designed to keep you in your place, a cruel hoax that crushes dreams and thwarts ambition.
     
    The war on talent uses this language of humane optimism, promising to decode and commodify a blueprint that can turn everyone and anyone into Lionel Messi or, if you prefer, Richard Wagner. The idea conveniently dovetails with the “tiger mother” school of parenting (founded by the Chinese- American law professor Amy Chua), in which children are merely clay models that can be contorted into their parents’ preferred shape.
     
    The chief beneficiaries of the war on talent will be not tomorrow’s athletes but tomorrow’s psychotherapists, who can look forward to a generation of future clients struggling to understand how, by some cruel quirk of mischance, they did not become Roger Federer, despite putting in the full 10,000 hours. So full credit to David Epstein, a Sports Illustrated journalist with a serious and deep knowledge of genetics and sports science, for his terrific and unblinking new book, The Sports Gene, a timely corrective to the talentdenial industry.
     
    Some athletes are clearly naturally gifted. In 2006, Donald Thomas, a basketball player from the Bahamas, was boasting about his slam-dunking prowess to fellow university students on the track team. They challenged him to jump six feet and six inches at the high jump. Without a semblance of technique, Thomas cleared seven feet. The previously unamused athletes rushed Thomas over to the athletics office. In 2007, after only eight months of training and despite finding high jump “kind of boring”, Thomas was crowned world champion. If he’d possessed even a rudimentary grasp of technique, he would have shattered the world record. Ten thousand hours? There wasn’t time. No, the key was Thomas’s remarkable Achilles tendons, ten and a quarter inches long and unusually stiff – a little like a kangaroo’s.
     
    There are also definable types of genetically inherited talents. Epstein was a middledistance runner at college and trained with a close friend and rival. His friend began as by far the better athlete but Epstein gradually surpassed him. Initially Epstein congratulated himself on his own guts, presuming that he had pushed himself harder in training. Then, as he started to watch more closely, he realised that they were doing exactly the same things, suffering the same pain. The difference was not determination but how their bodies responded to training. His friend had a higher “baseline” of aerobic fitness (if they were both forbidden from exercising, his friend would emerge naturally fitter), whereas Epstein had greater “trainability”: his body improved more when it was pushed. The greatest sportsmen, Epstein argues, have both a high baseline and high trainability.
     
    That is what I witnessed at first hand as a professional sportsman. Success depends on a mysterious compound (not a mixture, as the elements interact to create an end product that is unrecognisable from its constituent parts) of several factors. First, there is baseline talent and trainability; second, those gifts need to be exposed to coaching, opportunity and competitive culture; and third, they must be marshalled and sustained by the personality of the athlete.
     
    Epstein’s book made me revisit my ideas about talent and genes. In my book Luck, I predicted a paradoxical renaissance for pure talent. Professionalism, with its homogenisation of training principles, could one day lead to a situation in which it is almost impossible to gain an advantage through practice (an advantage that was clearly possible in the early decades of professional sport, when some teams were slow to embrace proper commitment). However, when everyone trains optimally, just as when no one trains at all, sport will be dominated by the most naturally talented.
     
    Epstein makes a strong case for a more interesting future. Given that everyone has a different phenotype, everyone has a dif - ferent optimal training regime – there can be no final and perfectly transferrable optimal practice routine. So coaches and physiologists should abandon their tendency to believethat they know what’s best for everyone and instead encourage divergence, irreverence, tinkering and trial and error. Groupthink, as ever, has it all wrong.
     
    Ed Smith writes the Left Field column in the New Statesman

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    Straddling the fault-line between Islam and Christianity, this country's changing fortunes are important.

    In the past three years the capital of the republic of Macedonia has undergone a major building programme that has enlivened the drab concrete of its 1960s, post-earthquake centre. The Skopje 2014 project includes a series of reconstructed neoclassical civic buildings, new bridges and, at either end of the medieval Stone Bridge, statues of sandalled Greek warriors commonly thought to be Philip of Macedon and Alexander the Great.
     
    The simplified, doll-like features and gigantism of these figures imply an unfamiliarity with the very western culture that, paradoxically, they celebrate. Said to cost up to €500m ($670m), Skopje 2014 is closely identified with Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski and his VMRO-DPMNE party, who were re-elected in 2011. The party is pro-Europe and pro-Nato and describes itself as Christian democratic. As that implies, it is usually seen as sidelining the country’s Muslim citizens, even though the Democratic Party of Turks is a member of its coalition government. The new Skopje looks backwards, in a manner known locally as antiquisation, to a resolutely western classical antiquity that the government of today claims as the country’s own. This claim is exacerbating already difficult relations with Greece, Bulgaria and, to a certain extent, Macedonia’s Albanian community.
     
    As so often in the Balkans, the difficulties are with narrative. The country is termed Fyrom – the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia – within the UN at the insistence of Greece, which, under the 1913 Treaty of Bucharest, gained a region of about 13,000 square miles that is also known as Macedonia. The treaty also granted territory to the modern republic’s other neighbours, Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia and Montenegro. Greece claims that for today’s state to call itself Macedonia implies territorial ambition. Bulgaria, though unfazed by the name, claims that the present government is spreading anti- Bulgarian propaganda.
     
    Balkan narratives are notoriously dangerous. Roughly two-thirds of the republic’s population of just over two million is Orthodox Christian and the remaining third Muslim. Approximately two-thirds is ethnic Macedonian and a quarter is ethnic Albanian; it also has substantial Turkish and Serbian communities, and at least 54,000 Roma inhabitants. In other words, Macedonia, which managed to emerge from the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s without drastic ethnic cleansing, straddles the region’s fault line between Islam and Christianity, making it a significant early-warning system.
     
    In 2012, the EU enlargement commissioner recommended for the fourth time that the republic, an official candidate since December 2005, should start accession negotiations. For the fourth time, the EU turned down this recommendation, rather giving the Macedonian government some months’ grace to resolve its issues with Greece and Bulgaria.
     
    As its neighbours join the EU and Macedonia is left behind, its economic position and stability can only deteriorate. In 2012 the IMF ranked the republic 133rd out of 185 countries by GDP, at $9.7bn.
     
    In the light of all this, Skopje 2014 seems not so much folie de grandeur as common insanity. This summer there have been mass demonstrations against a government viewed by all sections of the population as out of touch and out of control. The possibility of real change in what is still a young democracy has receded for now. But this peculiarly vulnerable – and very beautiful – country remains the Balkan canary. We should pay attention when it sings.

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    It's been a fraught year for relations between trans people and the British press, from Richard Littlejohn singling out transsexual teacher Lucy Meadows, to the reaction to Chelsea Manning's announcement.

    It has been a year of fraught relations between trans people and the British press, with Julie Burchill’s shabby, incoherent (and swiftly retracted) broadside in The Observer in January and Richard Littlejohn singling out transsexual teacher Lucy Meadows in the Daily Mail before her death in March. Unkind and unfair coverage – in particular the use of old names, incorrect pronouns and the trashing of people’s identities – has long concerned the community, with individual writers entering the mainstream media and organisations such as Trans Media Watch and All About Trans holding dialogues with editors and journalists in efforts to change the culture.

    This has made progress, but also provoked virulently transphobic responses from certain conservative, socialist and radical feminist commentators; amongst other things, Pvt Chelsea Manning’s announcement that she wishes to live as a woman after being imprisoned for providing classified information to Wikileaks has provided a high-profile test case for the current nature of newspaper coverage of trans-related stories. For those following the case, Manning’s gender dysphoria was well known, but Manning and her family asked that Manning be referred to by male pronouns before the sentencing, and it was only last week that it became widely reported.

    Largely, the broadsheets focused on the difficulties that Manning will face in a men’s jail, generally handling this more sensitively than in the US. Using elements of the familiar first-person transition story whilst questioning its clichés, All About Trans activist Paris Lees documented her youthful experiences of an all-male prison in a sensitive Guardian piece. All About Trans met Channel 4 News’s Cathy Newman as part of their media engagement, and Newman quoted Lees in a Telegraph article on the consequences of pressure for male-born gender dysphoric people to meet masculine expectations, and the additional challenges, particularly the heightened risk of physical and sexual assault, that transphobia might bring. (The specific problems of the US prison system for trans prisoners were also highlighted in Jane Fae’s New Statesman blog.)

    Many trans people noted which pronouns were used: Trans Media Watch’s guidance advises the use of those which most closely match an individual’s presentation, and avoiding ‘old’ names and photos, but in Manning’s case, both were established in the public domain. Adam Gabbatt in the Guardian began with ‘the US soldier who was sentenced as Bradley Manning’ before using Chelsea, she and her; the Mail’s long, surprisingly delicate response used Manning’s male name just twice – in the headline and the opening sentence – with female pronouns and her chosen name thereafter, emphasising the US Army’s refusal to fund treatment and the statement from Manning’s lawyer answering accusations of narcissism. In this context, the BBC’s use of male pronouns across their website was especially disheartening.

    If this seems broadly positive, it should be noted that the British press were covering an American case. US outlets emphasised the cost of Manning’s transition (but not of incarcerating her), and British publications frequently highlight the taxpayer contribution towards gender reassignment for prisoners who are not otherwise newsworthy. The Daily Star's 'Rot in hell you traitor’ and Brendan O’Neill’s tediously inevitable and inevitably tedious Spiked diatribe telling Manning that she cannot determine her own gender identity suggest that had this occurred in Britain, the newspapers may have discredited Manning with the tired transphobic tropes deployed by Burchill and Littlejohn.

     


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    Latest high-profile departure from DC cites editorial interference in storylines.

    JH Williams III and W. Hayden Blackman, the co-writers of DC Comics' Batwoman series, have announced they are leaving the comic due to DC's refusal to allow the character, the first lesbian superhero with her own solo title, to get married.

    Writing on his personal blog, Williams broke the news this morning:

    In recent months, DC has asked us to alter or completely discard many long-standing storylines in ways that we feel compromise the character and the series. We were told to ditch plans for Killer Croc’s origins; forced to drastically alter the original ending of our current arc, which would have defined Batwoman’s heroic future in bold new ways; and, most crushingly, prohibited from ever showing Kate [Kane, Batwoman] and Maggie [Sawyer, her fiancée for the last six months] actually getting married. All of these editorial decisions came at the last minute, and always after a year or more of planning and plotting on our end.

    We’ve always understood that, as much as we love the character, Batwoman ultimately belongs to DC. However, the eleventh-hour nature of these changes left us frustrated and angry — because they prevent us from telling the best stories we can. So, after a lot of soul-searching, we’ve decided to leave the book after Issue 26.

    Williams later clarified that the prohibition on "ever showing Kate and Maggie actually getting married" did mean that the characters couldn't get married at all, whether "shown" or not.

    DC's editorial decision does not seem to be based on opposition to same sex marriages specifically, but more on an policy against any character being married. Notoriously, the company split up Clark Kent and Lois Lane in their most recent relaunch of the Superman titles in 2011, following Marvel's similar decision to break up Peter Parker and Mary-Jane Watson in 2007.

    Nonetheless, it does seem like an attempt to have their cake and eat it: the company was happy to mop up praise when Batwoman proposed to her girlfriend in February, with coverage in the Huffington Post, and USA Today leading the pack. Those publications may not have been as eager to cover the news if they had known that DC had no plans to allow the storyline to actually come to fruition.

    Williams' and Blackman's departure from Batwoman is only the latest in a string of high-profile exits from the company. James Robinson left Earth 2, his series about an alternate DC Comics universe which made headlines for introducing a gay Green Lantern, in May. Star artist Rob Liefeld had an extremely messy break-up with his employers last summer. Josh Fialkov quit two titles before he even started, new announced on the same day that Andy Diggle did the same thing with Action Comics. There have been so many stormy exits that a relatively lengthy timeline has been compiled detailing them all– and in nearly every case, the excuse is the same: editorial interference prevented creatives from doing their jobs.

    But there's one piece of good news for DC. Williams' upcoming Sandman Overture series with Neil Gaiman is not affected by his exit from Batwoman. Those comics, so profitable they're selling them twice, will make the company's Autumn a happy one indeed.


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    Nicholas Lezard's "Down and Out" column.

    So, while the Beloved is away, I find myself once again sharing the bed with a large and varied assortment of reading matter – “the scholar’s mistress”, I believe it’s called, for the books assume the contours and the active gravitational mass of a human body. (Yes, pedantic scientists may point out that the gravitational pull of a body roughly 60 kilogrammes in weight is negligible, but then there are bodies and there are bodies.)
     
    It is, indeed, an eclectic bunch: a selection from Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, edited by Kevin Jackson; the last three issues of the TLS and the last two of the LRB; the last-but-one issue of Viz (it had a fake reader’s letter about, of all things, piccalilli, which was so funny that when I tried to read it out to a friend I found myself gasping on the floor for breath, eyes streaming with tears); a beautiful, leather-bound edition in two volumes of Browning, embossed with the arms of Trinity, Oxon, which had been won by an M Davidson in 1904, but which I picked up in a second-hand bookseller’s on Bell Street in central London for £34 (I have not got much further with “The Ring and the Book” than I did in my student days but it smells lovely); a complete set of Peanuts strips from the years 1967-68, its golden period; Marcus Berkmann’s A Shed of One’s Own; and . . . and . . . Jesus Christ, what’s this?
     
    It’s as if I had woken up not with a beautiful woman by my side but with a deformed and cackling succubus. The book is by Laura Vanderkam and is called What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast. It all comes back to me. Oh, the shame. Not mine, though: the shame is Penguin’s. It has started bombarding me – whether out of a spirit of malice, or satire or ignorance, I do not know – with the kind of book that goes in the motivational parts of the business section of bookshops. I am, as they say, a long way from my comfort zone here. Opening it roughly in the middle, for I imagine successful people do not bother with the first half of things, I see the words announcing a section, “What the most successful people do at work”, and the chapter heading on the next page is “The secret of astonishing productivity”. These are in capitals in the original but I will spare you. As far as I can see, the main thrust of the book’s advice can be summed up as: “Get up at 5am.” No good for me, I’m afraid.
     
    I flick through further and discover what “may be the most important tip in this book”: to plan “something fun” for Sunday nights. Again, no good for me, since I lost all track of what day of the week it was some time during the first Blair administration. (It is, I have discovered, surprisingly difficult to find out online what day of the week it is and I have at times resorted to calling a friend and then nonchalantly, as if in passing, saying, “Ha, ha, what day is it again?”) Sometimes I’d do the Uxbridge Arms quiz, which was on a Sunday, but lately I have started losing horribly at that and do not consider arriving home broke, furious, miserable and bursting for a pee to be my idea of fun.
     
    Then there’s Life’s a Pitch: What the World’s Best Sales People Can Teach Us All by Philip Delves Broughton. He also wrote What They Teach You at Harvard Business School, which I concede, if it really is what they teach you at that institution, could represent a significant saving; but if it isn’t, then it might be doable under the Sale of Goods Act.
     
    And what’s this? The Launch Pad: Inside Y Combinator, Silicon Valley’s Most Exclusive School for Start-Ups by Randall Stross. (This didn’t make it to the scholar’s mistress but I did find it on the chairdrobe, which gives you a little peek, if you ever wanted one, into the state of my bedroom.)
     
    The sub-imprint for this series, I note, is called Portfolio. Its logo is of a man poised to chuck a javelin – at an angle to the perpendicular of about ten degrees, which, as any mathematician will be able to tell you, is about 35 degrees away from the most efficient angle to chuck something if you want it to go anywhere far.
     
    A couple of days later, I’m in the pub with the Beloved, enjoying a pint. It is about 6pm and the tables are crowded with office workers. My eyes brim in pity. How many of them own these books, or would be interested in buying my copies if I offered to sell them? But I won’t, because these books represent everything that has gone wrong with society since the end of the Second World War and I wouldn’t want to encourage them. 

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    Darling reveals that while serving as Work and Pensions Secretary, he was told that the programme would be "very difficult" to implement and would cost more than it saved.

    The most notable intervention during Iain Duncan Smith's emergency statement on Universal Credit (the subject of an excoriating report today by the National Audit Office) came from Alistair Darling. 

    Darling, who is always listened to respectfully by Conservative MPs, told the House that while serving as Work and Pensions Secretary he was warned by officials that a Universal Credit-style system would be all but impossible to implement and would likely end up costing more than it saved. He said:

    I was advised then that it was technically very difficult, if not impossible, to implement at anything like an acceptable cost, and whatever the cost I was quoted it was likely to end up costing an awful lot more.

    Darling rightly pointed out the absurdity of Duncan Smith claiming that Universal Credit, which aims to replace six of the main means-tested benefits and tax credits with a single payment, was "on time and on budget" - the NAO report reveals that £34m of IT programmes have been written off and the programme, which was originally due to apply to all new claimants of out of work benefits from this October, will now apply to just ten job centres - and asked Duncan Smith what advice he had received about it. He dismissively replied that he had been told it could be delivered and complained that Labour had just "carped". 

    In reality, as the NAO report reveals, the DWP is considering delaying the full introduction of the programme until after October 2017 since the current timetable means there will be "less time to deal with any problems identified during migration".

    But while Darling's revelations are damaging for Duncan Smith, they also pose questions for Labour. At the moment the party still supports Universal Credit in principle and has called for cross-party talks with civil servants to save the programme. But if the problems with the system prove as intractable as many fear, Labour may eventually conclude that it is, as Darling's officials warned, simply unworkable. 


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  • 09/05/13--04:58: What ever happened to snuff?
  • Snuff hit Britain at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Ben Duckworth discovers that it never really left.

    Of all the things to still make in Britain – snuff. I don't know anyone who admits to using it but this eighteenth-century dandy's habit lives on. We recently learned that some MPs take a pinch from a box kept at the entrance to the House of Commons chamber. I wonder if any have sniffed a little on their return to Westminster? What do they smell in it?

    Time to try it. In front of me on my kitchen table is a small tin of something resembling finely sieved soil. This dark brown matter is called Kendal Brown. It is a premium product in its market, loved by aficionados. A footman claims to Sam in The Pickwick Papers that “coffee is the best practice”. I don't fancy sticking my Co-op Fairtrade Italian up my nose so I get straight into the real stuff. Shoving my nose into the receptacle to sense its bouquet, I make the schoolboy error of exhaling afterwards and blow it into my eyes. This ends a brief thought about plunging my head into the pile like Tony Montana in Scarface. After dealing with my stinging eyes, I pick a pinch out and sniff it up sharply. It smells gently ancient and is less intrusive up my nostril than I expected. To my surprise, I don't sneeze.

    This is British manufacturing in 2013, with a strong whiff of a time when the French dethroned their king and Mary Wollstonecraft published A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. The pinch somewhere up my right nostril has been made in the South Cumbrian town that the product is named after, at one of the few remaining factories in the UK. It was produced by a 50-tonne machine that is over 260 years old - believed to be the oldest piece of industrial machinery still in productive use in the UK. In 1792, it was bought second-hand by a nascent snuff company started by an ambitious man called Thomas Harrison. Its unknown Georgian designer did not build it to crush and grind tobacco stems and leaves. Originally the machine, which somehow lacks a nickname, was constructed to make gunpowder in the north of Scotland. The two manufacturing processes are similar. Harrison, fresh from studying the art of snuff in Glasgow, had it dismantled and carried by horses several hundred miles south where it has remained ever since.

    Bob Gregory is director of Samuel Gawith Limited, the company that runs the antique machine. Mr Gregory is a menthol snuff man: “It is very good for when you've got a bad head cold or a hangover. It clears the head,” he claims. The machine is old but some things have changed. Flavoured snuff is the company's idea of modernisation. Traditional Kendal Brown remains the big seller but nowadays you can buy mandarin and cherry favours. Their website boasts of 'NEW!! GIN & TONIC snuff' - a whole night out to be enjoyed up your nostrils. Gregory, a gregarious man with a habit of introducing Dickensian flourishes into his speech, assures me the flavours are of good quality. “If you buy a packet of wine gums, the flavour in the wine gums is the flavour we use in the snuff, so to speak.”

    Flavours are added at the end of the process. Samuel Gawith have about five different base snuff products made from tobacco originating in countries like Brazil and Malawi. The best product goes into the pipe tobacco that the factory makes. Snuff is made from what's left.

    “You don't need to use the finest of tobacco leaf,” explains Gregory. “Half of the character of pipe tobacco is what it looks like. You want it to look nice. You use the best you can afford. With snuff, it's a powder. As long, as it looks like powder, then everyone is happy. You've got very little straw coloured snuff, light coloured, light brown, dark brown, very dark brown and black snuff. It doesn't matter so much with snuff as long as the colour is right.”

    Snuff hit Britain at the beginning of the eighteenth century. London tobacconists placed wooden model Scottish Highlanders outside to show they sold it – as if snuff were the shortbread of the 1700s. The paraphernalia became embarrassingly bling. Lord Byron spent 500 guineas on “seven gold snuff boxes” and “seven snuff boxes of gold and silver gilt” in one shopping blowout. Beau Brummel was able to open his snuff box and sniff using only his right hand. But snuff wasn't simply a fashionable accessory for young men who had it all. Other classes just kept theirs in simple boxes that haven't made it into the British Museum. Coal miners were keen users as lighting up underground wasn't an option if you wanted to live long. Snuff-addict Charles Darwin, his moustache “slightly brown from the habit”, stuffed some up a monkey's nose to study its emotions. “It closed its eyelids whilst sneezing; but not on a subsequent occasion whilst uttering loud cries,” he recorded.

    Now in 2013, the habit of snuff-taking continues as an underground habit, a “secret society,” says Gregory. A few bars offer it as an edgy drinks accompaniment. Tins and tubs containing it are hidden out of sight in the four central London tobacconists I visit. The Society of Snuff Grinders, Blenders and Purveyors is sadly defunct, although it is said you can join the London Snuff Club through a Charing Cross tobacconists. Instead, a keen, swotty community exists at snuffhouse.org and online shops like mysmokingshop.co.uk stock hundreds of varieties. Gregory admits the over-40s are the dominant consumers but remains positive that “the younger snuff taker is showing a lot more interest because he realises he can take it wherever he wants – on an aeroplane, for example.”

    He recommends I sprinkle some on a poached egg. “Quite tasty,” he claims. Out of eggs, I add some to a chilli I'm making. It seems like something a cowboy might do. It's unclear what the Kendal Brown added in the final tasting, but the colour looked good.

     


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    Ed Smith's "Left Field" column.

    Kevin Spacey’s James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture on 22 August at the Edinburgh International Television Festival was a fine example of effective speechwriting. It had charm, wit, a strong argument and spectacular anecdotes – delicious titbits from the conversations of A-plus celebrities. As with all good speeches, the ideas and the stories merged into a single effect. Who can resist a primer on cultural history when it is peppered with talk from Hollywood’s high table?
     
    Mainstream television, Spacey said, has stopped taking risks, stopped backing talent. It seeks easy winners and commercial certainties. He argued that creative industries become sclerotic when the balance of power swings away from creative talent and towards executive bean-counters. It started in film. He quoted from David Lean’s 1990 speech bemoaning the state of Hollywood: “We don’t come out of many new holes any more. We try to go back and come out of the old ones . . . If we don’t [give new storytellers encouragement], we’re going to go down and down and down and lose it all – to television. Television is going to take over.”
     
    The same problems soon afflicted television. Spacey recalled how NBC sent a memo to the writer Steven Bochco just before the first season of Hill Street Blues aired. It listed the company’s concerns following focusgroup testing: the main characters had “flawed personalities”; they were never completely successful at work and their lives were a mess; there were too many loose ends. In other words, the show veered towards art, whereas the executives wanted fantasy. But execs don’t know what people want. The “flaws” that defined Hill Street Blues provide the explanation for the success of The Wire, Mad Men and Spacey’s series House of Cards (recently streamed by Netflix). As Henry Ford said, “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse.”
     
    I would add three points to Spacey’s. He describes a world in which original talent is thwarted by executive philistinism. Yet often that situation, whatever the creative sphere, is supplanted by a subtler but no less depressing status quo. Creative talent, disappointed enough times, begins to self-censor, to think along permissible lines of inquiry. It starts to “go native”. Writers become conditioned by what they know – or imagine they know – their bosses will like.
     
    So a bleak mutual reinforcement of risk aversion develops, trickling down from above but also seeping up from below. That’s why there is a strong case for writers not to spend much time around executives, editors and producers. Being an outsider protects essential naivety. If you don’t know the boss’s tastes, you are protected from pandering to them.
     
    Almost as depressing as the cynical, riskaverse, focus-group-led sequel/prequel/re - make is film or television that is more determined to be edgy and original than it is to be good. This danger was captured in C S Lewis’s broader warning: “No man who bothers about originality will ever be original; whereas if you simply try to tell the truth . . . you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.”
     
    Finally, Spacey doesn’t allow for the reality that declining creative industries cannot always be rescued by greater risk-taking. All art forms have a natural life cycle; talent realigns itself to follow opportunity.
     
    Golden ages are not always mythical. In the late 19th century, opera towered triumphantly over the rest of the arts. Debussy’s remark that Wagner’s operas were “a beautiful sunset that was mistaken for dawn” proved brilliantly prescient. Both Wagner and Verdi were born 200 years ago this year. Even the most devoted fan of classical music would struggle to argue that the two men would be writing musical dramas if they were alive today.
     
    Art forms can wind up frighteningly fast. Film once enjoyed a magical dual frame of reference: it looked back to the stage play while pointing forward to something new. Whenever I watch films such as Rear Window and Dial M for Murder, I’m struck how much it feels like I’m watching a play in my living room, albeit a play with special tricks. (Dial M for Murder was adapted from the stage, Rear Window from a short story.) In contrast, because today’s viewers are more used to effects than theatre-style dialogue, film directors usually serve up scenes lasting only a few sentences.
     
    Remember the singer-songwriter? It is no coincidence that a single generation produced the clustered greatness of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Paul Simon and Jackson Browne. They could express themselves in a new artistic medium: the album. Most consumers don’t even recognise the word today, let alone the idea of a sequence of songs that has a particular atmosphere and artistic unity. I remember my parents’ friends telling me that if Shakespeare had been alive in the 1960s, he’d have been a pop star. Now, it’s more likely he would be writing television dramas for HBO.
     
    This shows how art forms can be brought back from the dead, often through technological good luck. “Fifteen years ago . . . television was considered a lost cause,” Spacey admitted. “I wouldn’t have been up here lecturing you because my agent would never have allowed me to even consider being on a television series after winning an Oscar, much less something ‘streaming’.” What happened? Television allowed for intelligent characterisation, while the DVD box set, which united the immediacy of the screen with the narrative sweep of the novel, made The Wire and its ilk a staple of civilised conversation. We could feast on one episode after another, the characters becoming part of our lives.
     
    Technology is the headless horseman of history, galloping through our lives without intention or care. We will never tire of good stories, as Spacey pointed out. But no one can predict the next form in which we will absorb them and how that will change the storyteller’s craft. 

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