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    A Little History of Literature and How to Read a Novelist.

    A Little History of Literature
    John Sutherland
    Yale, 288pp, £14.99

    How to Read a Novelist
    John Freeman
    Corsair, 384pp, £8.99

    A Little History of Literature, which begins with Beowulf and ends with bestsellers, is primarily a guide for teenagers, and John Sutherland brings to the vast and unruly subject some order, clarity and commonsense. Like Dr Johnson, he enjoys the chance to “concur with the common reader”, and the common reader – addressed as though he or she were a bright-eyed Candide rather than a dead-eyed nihilist – will doubtless concur with Sutherland’s views on the joys of genre fiction, the value of what Orwell called “good-bad books”, the analogy between Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads and the lyrical ballads of Bob Dylan, and the virtue of good film adaptations, such as the 1992 version of The Last of the Mohicans, which “complicates our response to the original novel”.

    There is no hand-wringing about the death of the book; Sutherland remains optimistic –“and with good reason” – about the place of ebooks and the future of reading. Nor does he bewail the popularity of the fan-fiction websites that gave us Fifty Shades of Grey, and where Harry Potter and Jane Austen obsessives share their own spin-off tales. These forums for the common writer revive a form of storytelling that, like the Odyssey, “is not commissioned, nor is it paid for, nor is it ‘reviewed’, nor is it bought. It is not, as the term is usually applied, ‘published’.”

    “Fanfic” is part of an evolving online republic in which writing is not a commodity but a “conversation”, and Sutherland himself adopts an easy conversational gait as he leads the nation’s youngsters, Pied Piper-like, away from their iPhones and into a written world from which he hopes they will never return. There are some good jokes along the way: Oepidus kills Laius at the crossroads in a fit of “road-rage”, the muse is a “mean employer” who provides “inspiration but no cash”, and religion in the age of Shakespeare was “literally a burning topic”.

    There are two million volumes of so-called literature in the vaults of the British Library and Sutherland’s problem is the same as the one he ascribes to Laurence Sterne with Tristram Shandy: how to pack everything necessary for the journey that the book is about to take, when you have ten times more clothes than suitcases. Some essentials have to be left behind. First in go myth, epic and tragedy; comedy is excluded but then Sutherland finds humour in everything. Instead of sensation novels, such as Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White, there are enjoyable discussions of “proto novels” – like Cervantes’s Don Quixote– where we “feel a novel trying to get out”, and of “novels about novels” – such as Tristram Shandy–which make it hard for the reader to get in.

    Wisely perhaps, Sutherland does not allow sex on this particular trip, which might explain the absence of D H Lawrence. Nor does he bring along Freud’s “discovery” of the unconscious; but then, as Freud himself conceded, the writers had got there first.

    Singled out for special attention are Johnson, Jane Austen, Dickens and Hardy rather than Trollope, George Eliot, Henry James or James Joyce. Space is given to Romanticism (but not the Gothic), modernism (but not postmodernism), to literature of the absurd, confessional and war poetry, as well as magical realism. Digressions into copyright law, the history of the book, prize culture and colonialism (Sutherland suggests that only “great” nations produce “great” literature) give the book an extra dimension.

    Critically speaking, Sutherland is old-fashioned but schools of criticism are not mentioned here; apart from Dr Johnson, the nation’s schoolmaster, the most significant critic referred to is “our English teacher in the classroom”. Despite his respect for the words-on-the-page approach, Sutherland goes for potted biographies and plot summaries rather than close readings. “Great literature never makes things simpler” he reminds us, and if I have a gripe with his laudably democratic approach it is that he makes reading seem too simple.

    He quotes Sartre’s contention that novels “are machines that secrete spurious meaning into the world”, and it would be good to see more of these meanings unlocked and to watch Sutherland demonstrate the difference between a meaning and a spurious meaning, or a line of good poetry and a line of “crud”. At the same time as he warns us that literature “gives no easy answers to difficult questions”, he makes reading seem as easy as a soak in the bath.

    That reading can be a high-risk activity becomes apparent in How to Read a Novelist, conversations between the former Granta editor John Freeman and 55 (mostly American) writers, from Toni Morrison to Jonathan Franzen. For Freeman, reading is “a challenge but there is pleasure in the challenge”, while “the best writing is always difficult to do”. In his introduction, “U and Me: the Hard Lessons of Idolising John Updike”, he describes how his own reading lesson began with Updike’s Rabbit, Run. Before long, Updike had become less a pleasure than a mania. Freeman “traced” his own life over Updike’s, leaving New York, as Updike had done, to live with his girlfriend in a clapboard house in New England, where he found his “relationship immolation” repeating those of Updike’s characters. He worried that the shelves loaded with Updike editions might collapse and smother him in his sleep; he then sold the collection to pay for a wedding ring. The marriage failed and on the day his divorce was finalised Freeman found himself interviewing the great man himself and confiding in him about the break-up.

    Why not? Updike had, after all, been a part of the relationship. Freeman’s assumption of intimacy apparently made Updike unhappy: “John”, his publicist explained, was “old school”. There is, Freeman learned, a wrong way to read: literature does not provide “vicariously learned solutions” to our own personal problems.

    Sound familiar, common reader? Nicholson Baker covered similar ground in “U & I”, his own account of the neurosis induced by Updike idolatry. Freeman doesn’t mention Baker’s essay but the homage is there in the title of his chapter. Is this a version of fanfic – or have I misread it?

    Frances Wilson’s books include “The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth” (Faber, £10.99)


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    Let's hope that that ITV grasps just how bad a writer Julian Fellowes is soon, and locks him in a room for a month with only Chris Morris and some classic Coronation Street on DVD for company.

    Downton Abbey;
    Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Curtain
    ITV

    A sad week, should your tastes extend to dotty costume dramas. (If they don’t, you’ll want to crack open the prosecco and pork scratchings.) At Downton Abbey, the big house of ridiculousness and anachronisms where this column begins, Julian Fellowes’s cheap little rape plot line reached a feeble denouement in the final episode of the series (10 November, 9pm) when Bates (Brendan Coyle) pushed the valet who’d attacked Mrs Bates in front of a bus and killed him – an excellent use of his precious day off, one has to admit.

    Meanwhile, Violet, the dowager duchess (Maggie Smith), having somehow intuited that her unwed grand-daughter Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) is up the duff by her bounder of a newspaper editor boyfriend, decided that the best solution all round –pass the smelling salts! –would be an all-expensespaid, five-month-long trip to Switzerland. At least there, she’ll be able to blame her swollen belly on too much Toblerone.

    Most unexcitingly of all, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) now has two hot-ish chaps dancing her attendance: Lord Gillingham and Charles Blake, both of whom must first have appeared in an episode I missed (that is, all of them) and both of whom look like Thunderbirds puppets, only with fob watches instead of strings. Dullards, the pair of them; Lord “Tony” Gillingham’s only claim to fame is that it was his valet whom Bates so swiftly despatched.

    Some viewers will perhaps be hoping for a threesome in series five, though how Dockery’s acting skills would cope with such a scenario, one can only imagine. Would a sex troika in the king-size she once shared with the ineffably boring Matthew Crawley render her any the less plank-like? I fear not. I’ve seen walnut commodes more animated than Lady Mary.

    What is to be done about Downton Abbey? I don’t know! ITV will, I fear, keep flogging this particular dead horse – “I’m sorry to have to tell you, Lord Grantham, but your favourite hunter was knocked down early this morning by Tom Branson, who was in a particular rush to get to a political meeting where he hoped to meet Miss Bunting, who had promised to show him her red bloomers; yes, I’m afraid these socialist girls are terribly easy, m’lord” – until such a time as the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (one of the groups that hand out the Emmys) begins to ignore it.

    So let us hope that is soon. Or that ITV grasps just how bad a writer Julian Fellowes is and locks him in a room for a month with only Chris Morris and some classic Coronation Street on DVD for company. Or that Maggie Smith storms off (I don’t believe the show could survive without her). Or that Fellowes is made the new presenter of Daybreak, which would leave him too knackered to worry about butlers at a Time of Great Social Upheaval.

    As for all of you people who still watch it, what is wrong with you? Seriously. Are you gripped in an ironic, postmodern, sneery, let’s-count-the-extras-at-Lady-Cora’svillage- bazaar, tee-hee kind of a way? (On this point, I spotted two: one in a sack race, the other manning the test-your-strength attraction.) Or are you simply waiting to see if Lady Mary’s expression is ever going to change?

    In other news, ITV also screened – after 25 years and 70 such films – Poirot’s last case: Curtain (13 November, 8pm). It started off well enough. David Suchet’s turn as the Belgian detective is, I have to admit, a remarkable thing: his beady brown eyes, his yellow, egg-shaped head and his slug-like ’tache combining to make him resemble a caricature by Max Beerbohm.

    When he yelped, “Eet’s not a wheelbarrow!” at poor old Captain Hastings (Hugh Fraser), who was loyally pushing his wheelchair around the grounds of the castle-cumboarding house where they were unaccountably marooned with the usual cast of jealous, thieving, poison-hoarding social climbers, a weirdly Proustian feeling washed over me. I must have been a student when the first Poirotwas screened. Ah, those were the days.

    But after this, it was downhill all the way. So very boring. In Agatha Christie Land, one knot of vipers is much like another. The bully. The hen-pecked husband. The cad. The invalid. The adulterers. By way of atmosphere, ITV gives us little cardigans and wide-legged trousers, rustling trees and arguments heard from the other side of a closed door. Scratchy strings signify the approach of the murderer, the click of Poirot’s pince-nez as he removes it from his sallow beak that the mystery is about to be solved.

    The murderer inevitably suffers from a very English kind of madness: thwarted but mild mannered, his or her malady is most commonly born of covetousness. It’s comforting to watch, if you have flu, or your boyfriend’s left you. Yet even its greatest fans must know that it’s possible to go off to make tea and a cheese toastie – chutney on the side and maybe a salad, too – and not miss any vital piece of “evidence”.

    Still, never mind. This is it now, for Poirot. No one can follow Suchet, who accomplished the detective’s penguin-like waddle by imagining he had to carry a coin between his buttocks. Au revoir, mon amis– at least until the repeats.


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    Perhaps any confident girl signed at puberty will write like a star. But there’s no hyperactive, Auto-Tune-heavy maximalism here; hers is a minimalist pop palette, in which drumbeats and finger clicks are surrounded by space.

    Pure Heroine (Universal)
    Lorde

    The billboards glower on high streets in black and white, their closest visual neighbour in music being the artwork for Joy Division’s final album, Closer. A young woman poses like a religious icon, dead eyes to the heavens, Renée Jeanne Falconetti’s Joan of Arc for the 21st century. The title would be a lame drug gag in the hands of a punk artist but for a pop singer it works, somehow.

    Ella Yelich-O’Connor, better known as Lorde, is the biggest new star of the year, with a number one single already on both sides of the Atlantic. This song, “Royals”, also soundtracked the arrival of New York’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio, on to his victory platform on 5 November. The weird tableau is on YouTube: a silver-haired Democrat walking through a sea of red flags, while a woman sings in a deep, bluesy voice, “I’ve never seen a diamond in the flesh/I cut my teeth on wedding rings in the movies/And I’m not proud of my address/In a torn-up town, no postcode envy.”

    In “Royals” and across her record, Lorde, whose pseudonym reflects her love-hate fascination with the titled, sings about young people’s experiences, especially their contradictory reactions to fame. She could be singing about the rich-poor divide in Manhattan, although she was writing about the suburbs of Auckland, New Zealand, where she grew up. She turned 17 earlier this month.

    Politicians plumping for youthful aural support is nothing new. Gordon Brown said he “loved” the Arctic Monkeys (his slice of Lester Bangs criticism: “They are very loud”). But with Lorde comes a self-awareness that shimmers in every part of her presentation.

    Her comfortable background plays a part. The daughter of a prize-winning poet and a civil engineer, she was a voracious reader as a child – she has said that she loved Raymond Carver’s economy of style at the age of 12. Signed by Universal when she was 13 after a friend’s father sent a video of her singing a Duffy song at school, she insisted on writing her own material, not recording an album of soul covers.

    Lorde’s precociousness extends to her relationship with the media. On 3 November, she retweeted a post from the 17-year-old magazine editor Tavi Gevinson: “‘She giggles, lacing her Chuck Taylors. She may be famous, but she’s still just a kid’ – end of every profile of a well-known young person.” She appears to be analysing everything, acutely aware of the way in which young people are caricatured.

    Clever female teens in pop are nothing new. Kate Bush was in her heights of wuthering at 18; Carole King was the same age when she wrote the one-night-stand pop shocker “Will You Love Me Tomorrow”. Perhaps Lorde stands out today because girls in pop exist in such a visual media culture. Rihanna dry-humps a golden throne in a thong in her latest video. Miley Cyrus stares straight at the camera before swinging naked on a wrecking ball.

    In the video for “Royals”, Lorde just sings – and she stares. Likewise with the video for “Tennis Court”, the song that opens PureHeroine. Though its first line smacks of Kevin-the-Teenager-grade ennui (“Don’t you think that it’s boring how people talk?”), it launches us firmly into the World of Lorde the Pop Star (“How can I fuck with the fun again when I’m known?”).

    Perhaps any confident girl signed at puberty will write like a star; perhaps Lorde is another product of the celebrity culture we live in. People who crave fame are able to achieve shades of it quickly these days. Yet her lyrics satirise the pop-star world refreshingly (“I’m kind of over getting told to throw my hands up in the air,” she sings in “Team”). There’s no hyperactive, Auto-Tune-heavy maximalism here; hers is a minimalist pop palette, in which drumbeats and finger clicks are surrounded by space. The song “400 Lux” starts with a repeated, single, slow drone; “Ribs” takes a whole minute to layer a hazy line of vocals. Lorde’s producer is no hotshot but New Zealand’s Joel Little, who had minor success with pop-punk bands back home. Here are two people from outside the system and they’re certainly refreshing.

    Pop’s great heritage of youthful melancholy is also here. Lorde’s voice is a mass of contradictions, its many sweet moments undercut with sourness. In “Buzzcut Season”, with its lovely minor-key chiming bells, there’s a line that she never follows up: “And I’ll never go home again.”

    Today’s 17-year-olds know their power and the pivots on which they are placed. They are the children of parents born not into rock’n’roll but into pop, folk, punk, indie and beyond, contemporary music’s rich and varied thick soup. They know how to access and shape the world, adapting their influences, not just absorbing them through a needle. In Lorde’s case – so far, at least – she knows how to make them work, too.

    As the chorus of “Still Sane” rings out, that billboard looms large in my mind again. “I’m little,” the lyric deadpans, “but I’m coming for the crown.”


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    These pages are populated by black male bodies in multiple guises: in drag, on stage, in the act of sex. Certain images return with a cumulative power more commonly associated with the novel. Pryor, in the depths of drug addiction, pours brandy over his body and sets himself on fire.

    White Girls
    Hilton Als
    McSweeney’s, 338pp, £14.82

    This is not an easy book, though that shouldn’t stop you wanting it. It feels incendiary, like a box of fireworks that might go off in one’s hands. It’s beautiful and deeply intelligent, but also profoundly resistant to being simplified or boiled down. Indeed, it sometimes seems to have been written in a language of such density and opacity as to deliberately replicate the complexity of the ideas with which it tangles.

    Hilton Als is the New Yorker’s theatre critic and White Girls his long-awaited second book, after 1998’s The Women. As the title suggest, this roving collection of essays is preoccupied with race and gender. But it will come as no surprise to regular Als readers that the idea of the white girl is not confined exclusively to the bodies of white women. Instead, he uses the concept to pry open larger issues of colour, masculinity, power and sexual desire. Tacking back and forth between memoir, profile and cultural criticism, his white girls include Michael Jackson, Eminem, Flannery O’Connor, Malcolm X, Truman Capote and Richard Pryor.

    The opening three words, “Sir or Lady”, serve as the name of Als’s first subject, a beloved friend: the platonic twin by whose companionship and example the writer discovers and assembles his own self. “We were, in short,” he writes, “colored male Americans, a not easily categorisable quantity that annoyed most of our countrymen, black and white, male and female alike, since America is nothing if not about categories.”

    Exploring these categories and particularly the places where they rupture under pressure has always been Als’s speciality, his special style. In a profile of Michael Jackson, he notes that in the 1970s, before the singer’s physical transformation, black gay men “began to refer to Jackson as ‘she’ and, eventually, ‘a white woman’ – one of the slurs they feared most, for what could be worse than being called that which you were not, could never be?” Later, discussing the black comedian Richard Pryor, he quotes one of Pryor’s ex-wives, who explains how women “saw themselves in him, in his not fitting in, the solitude of it all, and his willingness to be vulnerable as women are. And disenfranchised, of course, as women are.” There is a gap between these two statements, between solidarity and mutual mistrust, and it is to this space that Als applies his formidable attention.

    Much of this necessitates looking at the body, and these pages are populated by black male bodies in multiple guises: in drag, on stage, in the act of sex. Certain images return with a cumulative power more commonly associated with the novel. Pryor, in the depths of drug addiction, pours brandy over his body and sets himself on fire: “And my smoldering chest smelled like a burned piece of meat . . . ‘Is there?’ I asked. ‘Is there what?’ someone asked. ‘Oh Lord, there is no help for a poor widow’s son, is there?’” This image and vernacular returns hard on an earlier essay on lynching, in which Als examines images of maimed and burned bodies while challenging the desire of white editors who pay him to look, to perform his distress, “to be a Negro on the page”.

    Both these incidents also connect to one of Als’s most acute moments of observation. It occurs in a profile of André Leon Talley, the flamboyant creative director of US Vogue During a shoot, a white woman refuses to be photographed unless “André tries not to look like such a nigger dandy”. “None laughed louder than André Leon Talley. But it seemed to me that a couple of things happened before he started laughing: he shuttered his eyes, his grin grew larger, and his back went rigid, as he saw his belief in the durability of glamour and allure shatter before him in a million glistening bits.”

    This ability to witness and record the physical effects of power on resistant bodies is combined with an almost incantatory knack for language. Als’s sentences are gorgeous, adorned, antagonistic, slippery and driven. As to what drives them, in a companion to the Pryor profile, he creates a monologue from the imagined point of view of Pryor’s sister, a voice-over artist for porn films. In between describing barebacking and money shots, she turns her ferocious gaze on “Suicide Bitch” – Virginia Woolf and the casual racism of her work. “Listen,” she says, “my job depends on my physical invisibility but never my absence. My voices are real because I believe in them enough to apply my interior voice to their reason. I resent Suicide Bitch. I resent her talking about me as though I wasn’t in the room.”

    From Malcolm X’s mother, Louise Little, to Marshall Mathers III, the boy who became Eminem, all Als’s subjects have been spoken about at one time or another as if they weren’t in the room. In taking up their stories, White Girls stands as both a work of reparation and a call to arms: an act of audacious magic that summons voices where there seemed to be none.

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


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    In Sansom’s humbled nation, the Labour leadership had scorned Hitler’s supposedly generous treatment of Britain and her empire, denouncing pro-appeasement backbenchers prepared to split the parliamentary party after it rejected Halifax’s rationale for making peace.

    The great strength of C J Sansom’s counterfactual novel Dominion (Mantle, £12.99) is its convincing portrayal of an alternative Britain in 1952. George VI is recently deceased and his eldest daughter awaits her coronation. Nazi Germany is ostensibly an ally not an occupying power: after Lord Halifax rather than Winston Churchill succeeded Neville Chamberlain in May 1940, the fall of France led to a peace treaty signed in Berlin.

    Thus only the Isle of Wight is occupied, although Senate House constitutes German sovereign territory in the heart of London, with Ambassador Rommel deaf to the screams coming from the Gestapo cells in the basement. Away from Bloomsbury, Sansom’s humbled nation remains in many respects the close-knit yet subtly fissured society that was faithfully reconstructed by David Kynaston in Family Britain; except that, to echo Orwell, the strictest members of the family are very much in control.

    In Downing Street, Halifax has made way for a Pétain-esque Lloyd George, his death enabling the Canadian press baron Lord Beaverbrook to satisfy the growing demands of a ruthless dictator in a distant capital. Yet here, it is Hitler whom Beaverbrook is eager to court and not Stalin. Sansom has done his homework, noting how out of uniform and in front of a camera a transformed Oswald Mosley could render the abhorrent acceptable. No wonder that by 1952 a now respectable British Union of Fascists has a sizeable presence in the Commons, allowing Mosley’s appointment as home secretary. Draconian powers render the Home Office a powerful agency of state control, its ambition thwarted only by Whitehall turf wars that the Germans find baffling.

    Still surviving is the India Office – however ferocious the struggle for independence in southern Asia – and in charge is Enoch Powell, displaying on television that disturbingly intense stare unique to the intellectually gifted and the manically inspired. His broadcast reaffirms “No surrender!”, but in this case it’s Uttar Pradesh not Ulster, the Führer’s respect for the British Empire ensuring German support for costly counter-insurgency operations. This is a recasting both persuasive and ironic, Sansom drawing on Powell’s wartime fantasy of being viceroy by the age of 30.

    In Sansom’s humbled nation, the Labour leadership had scorned Hitler’s supposedly generous treatment of Britain and her empire, denouncing pro-appeasement backbenchers prepared to split the parliamentary party after it rejected Halifax’s rationale for making peace. After 12 years of the state smothering even the tamest dissent, Attlee’s party has joined Churchill’s rogue Tories in abandoning Westminster: the two men provide political leadership for a resistance movement intent on destroying a regime that is ever more indifferent to parliamentary supremacy and the rule of law.

    Irony is rooted firmly in accuracy, with only the odd factual error (Etonians play football not rugby; and by dying in 1947 the pro-appeasement cleric Arthur Morley could never have been archbishop of Canterbury five years later). However, Sansom is mistaken in portraying Sir John “Jock” Colville as the devoted acolyte of Churchill he became in real life. In May 1940 Colville was Chamberlain’s loyal private secretary and thus keen for the foreign secretary to succeed should his master be forced to quit. Had Halifax become prime minister, then a relieved Colville would never have altered his view of Churchill as a dangerous opportunist. This is a minor criticism given Sansom’s success in recreating the urban, and especially suburban, landscape of early-1950s Britain, and in recalling the claustrophobic, conservative nature of domestic life.

    The book’s authenticity is rooted in a refusal to exaggerate the grimness of everyday living, as well as a recognition that more than a decade after a brief and Blitz-free war, Britain would have emerged from austerity, in the same way that for different reasons the “second Elizabethan era” really did embrace growing affluence and incipient consumerism. Britain across the 1950s saw old prejudices suppressed or melt away, while new ones emerged. No Windrush generation can exist in Sansom’s counterfactual society but he recognises the reality of festering anti-Semitism. At a time when Jews were still often blackballed at the golf club, insulted as “Yids” and labelled as mean, clearly there existed the potential for a malign remoulding of public opinion.

    Sansom’s “Historical Note” rightly challenges postwar complacency as to how the British would have dealt with defeat. His afterword articulates a set of fundamentally decent social-democratic values. Where many readers may demur is when he defends depicting a purged SNP as collaborationist and quasi-fascist. Not surprisingly the Scottish Nationalists are appalled by Dominion, dismissing the half-Scottish author’s right to portray nationalist aspiration as too often a dangerous and reactionary phenomenon.

    Here is an argument that will run and run, fuelled by aggressive promotion of the paperback edition. Yet however contentious Sansom’s views on Scottish independence are one year away from the referendum, even his harshest critics north of the border would concede that Dominion is the most imaginative restatement of counterfactual fiction since Robert Harris’s 1992 Fatherland. It may not be Alex Salmond’s bedside reading but as an exercise in virtual history, Dominion remains a remarkable achievement.

    Adrian Smith is professor of modern history at the University of Southampton


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    After a Tory strategist claimed a private poll put them two points ahead of Labour in marginal seats, the party comes under pressure to release its findings.

    When I reported yesterday on Tory claims that a rerun of Lord Ashcroft's marginals poll (with the sitting MPs named) put them two points ahead of Labour (rather than 14 points behind), I wrote that the good Lord would be "watching closely". As anticipated, Ashcroft has now intervened, accusing the Tories, in a withering piece on ConservativeHome, of resorting to "comfort polling". 

    In the original article, by the Telegraph's Dan Hodges, a "Tory analyst" was quoted as saying: "We reran it in the seats we hold but included the name of the sitting MP. We were ahead by 2 per cent." But as I pointed out, this leaves some important questions unanswered. Were other candidates named? (Voters may well prefer an individual to an amorphous party.) How were the questions worded? ("Will you vote for your hard-working local MP Matthew Hancock rather than the 'welfare party'?") What was the sample size? What was the weighting? 

    These concerns are also raised by Ashcroft, who writes: "As worrying is the idea that the private poll 'included the name of the sitting MP' but – by implication, and of necessity since not all candidates will have been selected – nobody else. It would not be surprising if this skewed the result considerably in favour of the incumbent. Did the party really spend money on a such a flawed survey?

    "Even if they did, it sounds unlikely that you could transform a double-digit deficit to a two-point lead simply by naming the MP. Which makes one wonder about other aspects of the poll. Which seats was it conducted in? What was the sample size? How was it weighted? How were the questions worded? With most polls, including mine, all this information is published. Where it is not, it is worth taking any reported results with more than a pinch of salt." He also asked, "why haven't the results been published per the pollsters code". 

    As Ashcroft notes, off-the-record briefings on private polling should always be treated with scepticism. With this in mind, I've written to the British Polling Council asking whether the poll should now be published in accordance with its disclosure rules. As the BPC states, "In the event that the results of a privately commissioned poll are made public by a third party (i.e. external to the organisation that commissioned the survey, its employees and its agents — for example the leak of embargoed research) the survey organisation must place information on its website within two working days in order to place the information that has been released into proper context."

    Andrew Cooper, David Cameron's former director of strategy and the founder of Populus, has argued on Twitter that the poll should be released (if it exists at all).

    The outcome is likely to depend on whether the pollster in question is a member of the BPC. Since surveys must be released "within two working days", I should get an answer shortly. 


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    One in 10 people in Iceland are on antidepressants, and prescription rates across the OECD have dramatically increased.

    According to a report released today by the OECD, the use of antidepressants in wealthy countries has risen dramatically in the past decade. Across the high-income countries surveyed, the average proportion of people taking antidepressants increased from 3.1 per cent to 5.6 per cent between 2000 and 2011, but use of antidepressant drugs varies by country. In Iceland, one in ten adults is on antidepressants, but in Korea it’s more like 1 in 100. 30 per cent of women over 65 are on antidepressants in Iceland, compared to 15 per cent in Norway.

    As the Guardian has reported, these findings have sparked fears that sadness is being over-medicalised, and that over-stretched doctors are forced, because of a shortage of alternative treatments for mild depression, including talking therapies, to over-prescribe.

    There may be some truth to this: consider, for instance, that a quarter of people in the UK who are referred by their GP for further psychiatric help – 116,000 in total – have to wait for more than 28 days. For someone in severe distress, this can be too long to wait. You could understand that doctors might be inclined, in border-line cases, to prescribe antidepressants rather than risk leaving an individual showing signs of mild to moderate depression without any support.

    The problem, however, is that it’s dangerous to generalise. One notable feature of the OECD report is how different each country’s mental health services and outcomes are. In Switzerland there are 45 psychiatric doctors per 100,000 patients, versus fewer than 10 per 100,000 in Korea, Turkey and Poland. In some countries GPs work much more closely with mental health services than others. Suicide rates across the whole of the OECD have decreased 20 per cent since 1990, but in Japan and Korea they have increased. Suicide rates in Korea (which has the highest suicide rate of the countries surveyed) are ten times higher than in Greece, which has the lowest rate. The excess mortality rate from schizophrenia is twice as high in Sweden as in Slovenia, and equally, a patient with bipolar disorder is three times more likely to die in Sweden as in Denmark.

    There are lots of possible explanations for the increased use of anti-depressants across the OECD. Doctors may be over-prescribing, but it could also be that people are using antidepressants for longer periods of time, or that as the stigma lessens around mental illness, more people are seeking help. The chances are the reasons for increased antidepressant use vary by country.

    Panic about the over-medicalisation of "sadness", an ordinary human condition, sometimes risk overshadowing the fact every day, antidepressants save countless of lives, and relieve many more people from acute suffering. I am much more worried about the many millions who lack access to any kind of psychological help (many of whom are not in rich countries) than the unknown number of people taking drugs they don’t strictly need.
     


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    Some have accused Abdellatif Kechiche's film of inauthentic depictions of lesbian sex - but Ryan Gilbey argues that the film as a whole breaks new ground in visualising human sexuality.

    Blue is the Warmest Colour (18)
    dir: Abdellatif Kechiche

    In the 1970s it was common to use “dancing at the other end of the ballroom” as a euphemism for male homosexuality. Even as a boy this struck me as misplaced. Surely dancing in the ballroom – in any ballroom, at either end – while the non-dancing men were all outside revving their chainsaws, was a bit gay?

    Blue is the Warmest Colour, a cool-headed love story shot in close-up for much of its three hours, finds a dramatic new visual euphemism for expressing sexual identity. Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) is a smartcookie student, no more inchoate than any other 17-year-old, who is crossing a busy road in Lille when she makes eye-contact with a stranger strolling in the opposite direction. That’s Emma (Léa Seydoux), whose languid tactility with her female companion is only the second most striking thing about her. The first is her mop of ashen-blue hair.

    The women exchange a lingering look. Emma seems amused. Adèle is gobsmacked by this blue-headed bolt from the blue. As Emma walks on, Adèle stops dead in the middle of the road, engines roaring around her. She is about to decide which side of the street she is on. It’s a spellbinding piece of acting. Exarchopoulos is not so much an open book as an uncorrected proof, every idle desire and surging daydream splashed across her face, waiting to be edited and inhibited by experience.

    Though the film is leisurely in reaching her head-turning, traffic-stopping epiphany, its pre-emptive use of the colour blue makes it appear that Emma was in Adèle’s life long before she got under her skin, in her hair, between her sheets. Blue bedding, blue flares on a protest march, a blue bench on which to break up with a boy under a proscenium arch of pink blossom.

    Abdellatif Kechiche’s film, which he adapted from the graphic novel by Julie Maroh, is about the journey through different frontiers that occurs in any love affair. Adèle enters Emma’s blue world, the gay world, but despite the initial elation of their relationship, there are other borders to clear. There’s the art world: Emma is a painter who adopts Adèle as her muse. (In one witty shot, the camera moves up her naked body to find the sexiest part of her: that cocky face, a cigarette dangling insouciantly from her lips in a studied bad-girl pose.) Class comes into play too, mainly through food. Emma’s family tutor Adèle in the eating of oysters but at Adèle’s house everyone chows down on hearty spag bol. The mucky smudge around her mouth suggests orange is the tastiest colour.

    Kechiche keeps his camera tight and close, so that we are almost as intimate with the characters as they are with one another. A brace of extended and explicit sex scenes has been responsible for the film’s advance publicity. Some lesbian viewers have cast aspersions on the authenticity of these scenes, arguing that they smack of straightness. Not being a lesbian myself – though, you know, never say never and all that – I am ill-placed to judge. I can say, though, that stiltedness is not a part of this movie. I did wonder why the characters bothered lighting candles if they were going to leave every available light on during sex: was that directorial prurience or a shocking disregard for the electricity bill? But not once did I spot a look on either woman’s face that suggested they were getting through the scene by thinking of Channing Tatum.

    The picture premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May, where it won the Palme d’Or just as riot police in Paris were subduing anti-gay marriage protestors in Paris. Some of that Cannes triumph has been soured by complaints from the lead performers who claim they were bullied and intimidated by their director. (Kechiche has done his part for diplomacy by lambasting the women for talking about pain “when doing one of the best jobs in the world”.) This doesn’t affect what’s on screen; the movie generates its own frenzied emotional vortex and it would take an act of will to resist or supplant that. Maybe it’s worth recalling the words of the director Michael Caton-Jones, who once reminded his actors while shooting an arduous scene: “Pain is temporary. Film is forever.” Not all films, perhaps. This one for sure.


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    Graeme Harrison, Executive Vice President of Marketing for Biamp Systems, reports on the influence soundscapes can have on the health of individuals and the economy.

    While reading the piece it may aid your concentration to listen to this sample from the Sound Agency...  

    Since our earliest days, sound has helped us avoid predators and provided us with a depth of awareness about our surroundings that no other sense can match. However, it’s hard to argue that sound plays quite the same role in our lives that it once did – the buildings and structures that make up our cities and house us in our everyday lives are designed almost entirely using visual aesthetics, with sound coming in as an afterthought at best.

    To some extent, this blindness (or deafness) to the impact that sound has on us has become even more serious in the modern day. As populations continue to expand we’re living in a world that is steadily becoming noisier. Research from the World Health Organisation has found that regular exposure to noise levels of just 50dB is enough to increase blood pressure, leading to a higher risk of heart attacks (as a point of reference average noise level in a busy office or classroom can exceed 65dB). Then, once you get to hospital, the battle continues as standard hospital wards are now being recorded with noise volumes as high as 92dB - nearly double the acceptable standard.

    On the other hand, silence is not the solution. The complete absence of noise is just as unnatural. What you’re listening to now is a generative sound installation that Glasgow Airport trialled in its departures terminal – the scheme was put in place to try to sooth passengers in a potentially stressful environment. In this case researchers found that travellers admitted to feeling more relaxed, even in cases where they hadn’t realised the soundscape was playing. And perhaps more surprisingly, retailers noticed an uplift in sales during the trial, with some periods seeing an increase of nearly 10 per cent in passenger spending. 

    The Glasgow case study is far from the only example of how sound can have a powerful effect on behaviour. Across the Atlantic, in the town of Lancaster, California, they experienced a 15 per cent drop in reported crime after the local mayor installed a birdsong-based soundscape in the downtown area. Organisations including the London Underground are following this lead expecting similar gains – when tube stations, including Brixton and Clapham North, noted decreased levels of violence following the introduction of classical music.

    So what’s the secret to these experiences? And how far does the potential stretch? Sound may no longer as important for warning us of predators as in the past but, as the research suggests, risks still exist. It’s clear that taking control of local soundscapes can have a positive effect, avoiding the aggravation of uncontrolled noise and offering tangible benefits such as improved health and behaviour of those in the surrounding area. We need to begin constructing our sound environments as carefully as we would the façade and interiors of our buildings. Improving sound design isn’t about bringing home cinema to life, or turning amps up to 11, but is something that can be of real value to our society, health, and economy.

    For more information, please see the whitepaper ‘Building in Sound’ which can be found here.


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    When a patient is diagnosed with fibromyalgia, all too often symptoms are dismissed as "all in the mind".

    Rare individuals born without pain perception (congenital insensitivity to pain, CIP) rapidly accumulate disabilities and tend to die young. Pain makes us withdraw from and subsequently avoid injurious situations, it prompts us to protect damaged structures such as eyes or joints, and it alerts us to diseases such as appendicitis that may prove fatal without treatment. And what is true of physical pain also applies to its emotional counterpart. Pain is good for us. It helps us to survive.

    But what if pain perception goes haywire? Like all UK general practitioners, I have several patients with a frustrating if fascinating condition called fibromyalgia. Jane (as I’ll call her) is typical of the severe end of the spectrum: she’s a woman in her 40s (early middle-aged women are most frequently affected), her life is blighted by unremitting pain in muscles throughout her body and no painkiller gives her any relief (she has tried them all, even morphine).

    Over the years she’s become progressively disabled, finding it harder to do even simple things such as help her young children dress, and she’s able to work fewer and fewer hours. Around 18 months ago she went long-term sick and earlier this year her employer terminated her contract. She’s now struggling to adjust to a life on benefits. Apart from the constant pain, one of the things she worries about most is other people’s disbelief. To casual observation, Jane appears in the pink of health.

    People with fibromyalgia have precious little to show for their suffering. They have no swelling, inflammation, limp or deformity. Blood tests, X-rays, scans and biopsies are normal. Theirs is a subjective illness. They find that family and friends eventually tire of hearing about their intractable pain and its impacts. Little wonder that depression and anxiety are common complications.

    To cap it all, their doctors frequently grow frustrated as they return, time and again, to report a distinct lack of improvement with each and every treatment they try. Over the years, many physicians have questioned fibromyalgia’s validity as a disease; physical symptoms are dismissed as “all in the mind”, the implication being that, in an unconscious way, these patients “need” their illness as a passport to duck out from the stresses, strains and dissatisfactions of everyday life.

    Advances in imaging the functioning nervous system are beginning to shed light on what’s really going on. To experience pain, you have to have the requisite sensory apparatus: receptors (nociceptors) that detect harmful changes within the body’s tissues and organs; and nerve cells (neurons) that relay this information to the brain.

    This sensory apparatus is missing in those rare individuals with CIP. But sensing alone is not enough. Once pain nerve signals reach the brain they are subject to what is termed central processing, involving a number of the brain’s most evolutionarily primitive regions, regions that are involved with raw emotional response – with fight, flight and survival. It’s this central processing that transforms nociceptor sensory input into our subjective experience of pain.

    There’s a heck of a lot of other nerve traffic passing from body to brain that’s got nothing to do with pain. For example, our muscles are constantly generating information about their position, stretch and contraction, all of which ensures the apparently effortless coordination of our movements and balance.

    In fibromyalgia, some of this non-pain information seems to become capable of triggering the brain’s central pain processing regions. The very fact of having normally functioning muscles begins to be experienced as chronic, widespread pain.

    It’s not fully clear what causes this malfunction, but a process called central sensitisation is at its heart. We know that 30 per cent of patients with uncontrolled rheumatoid arthritis –where diseased joints constantly bombard the brain with nociceptive input – will eventually develop superimposed fibromyalgia. Sheer volume of pain traffic in the nervous system may be one factor in central sensitisation.

    However, many fibromyalgia sufferers don’t have painful arthritis. Their fibromyalgia may be linked to genetically disposed abnormalities in brain chemistry. The chemicals (neurotransmitters) involved in central pain processing have different functions elsewhere in the nervous system, which may account for the additional symptoms many fibromyalgia patients experience – sleep disturbance, profound fatigue, and impaired concentration and thinking (“fibrofog”).

    It’s as yet unclear what causes these neurotransmitter abnormalities to be “unmasked” at a certain time but intriguing studies into “pain memory” suggest that stresses in adult life may reignite central sensitisation originally developed in the context of severe emotional or physical pain when young, something that may explain the association between fibromyalgia and childhood abuse or trauma.

    We’re still a long way from understanding fibromyalgia, but we are at least now aware that, as an illness, it’s all in the brain, if not the mind.


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    "Britain simply won’t be able to tackle the cost-of-living crisis that we currently face – or build the strong economy that we need to take us to a more prosperous future – unless we build more homes."

    Thank you Isabel and to the National House-Building Council for inviting me to speak to your prestigious and superbly attended annual lunch, now in its 77th year.

    Over that time, this Council’s mission to ensure quality and high standards in house-building has been copied around the world.

    Founded to ensure that high standards were sustained during the house building surge of the 1930s, you repeated that task as government and the house building industry came together to build homes for returning heroes after the second world war.

    And my message today is that the work of this Council and a strong partnership between government and this industry will be essential over the next decade as we move into what I believe must a new era of house-building.

    It will be difficult, but I believe we can forge a consensus across parties and across our country that Britain simply won’t be able to tackle the cost-of-living crisis that we currently face - or build the strong economy that we need to take us to a more prosperous future – unless we build more homes.

    So as Shadow Chancellor, and with our new Shadow Housing Minister, Emma Reynolds, I am delighted to be here today to discuss with you why we believe housing must be at the centre of Britain’s economic policy.

    Recovery

    We meet here today with economic recovery finally getting going again after a long and damaging period of stagnation, and that return to growth is something to celebrate and nurture.

    But with business investment still on hold, bank lending to SMEs still contracting, youth unemployment still very high, house completions still historically very low and living standards still falling for millions - meaning that for most people there is so far no recovery at all - this is no time for complacency.

    Because there is no quick fix. We have to earn our way to rising prosperity. But we will not succeed unless we use the talents of all and ensure that everyone can benefit from economic recovery and not just a few.

    That is why we believe it is so vital that government works closely with all businesses - large and small: to promote open markets, competition and long-term wealth creation; and to reform our economy so that, by using and investing in the talents of all, we can deliver rising living standards not just for a few but for everyone in every part of the country.

    And building more homes will be central to that vision.

    Of course, you might say that Labour did not move early enough to put house building at the centre of our economic policy when we were in power.

    You’d be right to say so.

    When we came into office in 1997, our priority was to tackle the huge backlog in housing repairs.

    Improving the housing stock we had was important, but the housing studies that you contributed to, which were hugely influential when we made the decision rightly not to join the euro, also highlighted the vital importance of boosting housing supply.

    Kate Barker’s subsequent review of housing supply, which we commissioned when I was at the Treasury in 2003, is rightly seen as a landmark document for the industry.

    And when we did put in place the investment, planning reforms and leadership, we together accelerated the rate of house-building to its highest level since 1989.

    Successive governments could – and should – have done more to build homes. The last Labour Government didn’t do enough at the beginning, but we did champion house-building - not just before the financial crisis but once it had begun too - because we recognised the importance of the long-term investment and jobs that it brings.

    And as a result of the work we did together to launch the 'zero carbon homes' strategy, this industry has shown a commitment to innovation and design to cut carbon emissions that has surpassed many other sectors - despite the current Government’s less than enthusiastic commitment.

    In recent years, your sector has been one of those worst hit by the recession, with 18,000 jobs lost in construction since the General Election. But after a long and protracted period of stagnation, in which in this industry capacity and skills have gone to waste and permanent damage has been done, the economic recovery does appear to be getting going.

    And there are early signs that house-building is starting to see a modest recovery.

    Today’s increase in home starts is welcome but the number of homes built over the past year is down eight per cent compared with the year before and the supply of affordable homes is at a near 10-year low.

    And at a time when rising life expectancy means increasingly families now have four generations and not three, new homes are currently being built at less than half the level that our country needs and it is the youngest generation that is set to lose out.

    Under this Government house building is at its lowest peacetime level since the 1920s. And by 2020, we are on course to have a shortfall of over 2 million homes.

    In my community, the weakening of the ‘brownfield first’ presumption is undermining sustainable development in an area where viable brownfield sites are widely available.

    And across the country, the combination of lower government financial support and planning changes have contributed to a falling share for affordable homes within overall housing starts, with affordable housing starts down over a quarter in the last year.

    So there is also still a huge amount of ground to be made up, and damage to be undone, before we get close to returning to pre-downturn levels.

    I believe that there are two central challenges for economic policy in the Autumn Statement and the coming months: how do we secure a strong balanced recovery which can deliver rising living standards for all and not just a few; and how do we ensure it is built to last and supports long-term investment.

    Both of these challenges require us to put house-building centre stage.

    That is what the Government must do.

    It is what we will do.

    Let me take each one in turn.

    Who is benefiting from this recovery?

    First, falling living standards mean that, on average, working people are now over £1,600 a year worse off than they were at the last General Election.

    And there is a very important housing market dimension to the cost of living crisis.

    Many people today can't access mortgages because of the difficulty of saving up for a deposit.

    In 1997, it took an average family just three years to save for a deposit on a home. Today, it takes an average of 22 years.

    But the cost-of-living challenge is about much more than mortgage availability - it’s about mortgage affordability too.

    Soaring house prices mean it’s simply too expensive for many people to get onto the housing ladder.

    You just have to look at house prices relative to earnings. Today, the average house costs ten times the average wage, compared to 5 times the average wage twenty years ago. And the fact is that this house price-earnings gap is continuing to widen.

    Much of the debate recently has been around Help to Buy. I will return to this in a moment.

    But Shelter estimate that high house prices mean first-time buyers on average earnings can afford to use the scheme in just 16 per cent of the country.

    Unless we build more affordable homes, house prices relative to earnings will remain high, houses will remain unaffordable, and many people will never realize their dream of owning their own home.

    And high house prices and the shortage of affordable housing directly impacts on rent affordability too.

    With more people now renting in the private sector than the social sector for the first time in decades, the cost of renting in the private rented sector has increased by twice as much as the rate of wages since the General Election.

    And the high cost of the private rented sector is not only bad news for families; it also hits the public finances hard too.

    As our previous Shadow Housing Minister, Jack Dromey, reminded me regularly, thirty years ago, around 80 per cent of public spending on housing was spent on building houses for people. Today, 95 per cent of total housing spending goes on housing benefit to subsidise high and unaffordable rents.

    Any sensible and sustainable attempt to cap structural social security spending and get the housing benefit bill down simply has to involve expanding the supply of more housing.

    Is this recovery built to last?

    Building more homes is essential to tackling the cost-of-living crisis. But house-building must also be at the centre of an economic plan to build a strong and sustained and balanced recovery.

    So far this year, the recovery has not been based on creating a significantly greater supply of new homes; instead, it has been built on generating greater demand when we already face a critical shortage.

    We have and continue to support ‘Help to Buy’ as one element in a balanced housing plan to secure economic recovery. It is vital that we give those with some savings who want to buy a home access to the housing market.

    The first phase, targeted at first time buyers in new build properties, was slow to get going but, alongside Funding for Lending, it has helped to unlock finance from a dysfunctional lending market.

    But the Government’s second phase of Help to Buy, with taxpayer-guaranteed 95% mortgages available to purchased existing properties, has been widely criticized, including by the former Governor of the Bank of England, the Institute of Directors and the IMF who warned:

    “in the absence of an adequate supply response, the result would ultimately be mostly house price increases that would work against the aim of boosting access to housing”.

    Commentators are right to question why the Chancellor has decided that a policy, which should be about helping first time buyers, is available for homes worth all the way up £600,000 and why this policy will allow existing mortgage holders to re-mortgage their current property with a taxpayer-backed mortgages.

    The Chancellor has said he will ask the Bank of England to review the details of the scheme in a year’s time.

    We believe a year is too long to wait.

    So I propose the details of the scheme should be reviewed now and then every six months thereafter, to make sure that is contributing to a balanced recovery that is built to last.

    But the fundamental flaw in the Chancellor’s current plan is to rely on securing lasting recovery by boosting housing demand, while failing to take any action to boost housing supply.

    If Help to Buy merely boosts demand for housing without being matched by action to increase housing supply, then house prices will rise and rise.

    The danger with this kind of unbalanced approach is that home ownership will be pushed even further out of reach for the aspiring first time buyers that Help to Buy should be helping.

    And at the same time, boosting demand without building more homes risks delivering an unbalanced recovery that will only make the economy more vulnerable in the future.

    When what this industry and our country needs is long-term certainty about rising housing supply so that you can plan ahead with confidence.

    Building more homes

    That is why I believe the challenge for the Autumn Statement, and the next Labour Government, is to match support for first time buyers with action now to boost housing supply.

    We have to be more ambitious.

    That is why, a year ago, Shadow Communities Secretary Hilary Benn, Jack Dromey and I urged the Chancellor to use the revenues from the sale of the 4G mobile spectrum to build 100,000 new affordable homes over the next two years.

    It is why we continue to support the IMF in urging the Government to bring forward £10 billion of infrastructure investment this year and next year.

    And it is why at our conference in September, Ed Miliband set out our commitment to build at least 200,000 new homes a year by 2020 – through a roadmap to support the private sector in building more homes, including more affordable homes, and a planning system that helps, not hinders, house-building.

    In setting out our ambition, we have asked Sir Michael Lyons to lead a new housing commission to advise us on what needs to be done to achieve our goal.

    The Independent Lyons commission will look at:

     

    • How we can get much more residential land to market;

     

    • What flexibilities could be granted to local authorities to they can build more affordable homes;

     

    • How we can ensure that communities that want to expand but do not have the land on which to grant planning permission can do so;

     

    • Whether the current planning gain system is fit for purpose;

     

    • And whether land made available for development is being land-banked in a damaging way and how this can be prevented.


    We will certainly want to hear your views on all of these issues.

    Because history shows us that developers, communities, local councils and national government all need to work together effectively to create homes people want to live in and towns that can become economically independent, are well connected to the regional economy, and generate local jobs.

    What we need to achieve requires a scale of ambition not seen for many decades.

    And I am not blind to the scale of the challenge and the difficulties that lie ahead.

    Nor do I expect you to overlook the fact that I am not the first politician to come to an event like this and promise change.

    But I have a very clear message.

    A Labour Treasury will make house-building a priority and play its full part in delivering the scale of change we need.

    And because of the scale of the deficit we can now expect to inherit in 2015, we will need to find innovative ways of supporting private sector investment to deliver that priority.

    If we are to meet that target of at least 200,000 new homes a year by the end of the next parliament, while protecting communities, preserving valuable green belt land, avoiding haphazard urban sprawl and encouraging quality housing in sustainable communities , then every community will need to play its part and plan for the next generation.

    But we are also clear that we cannot deliver this ambition unless we build new towns.

    Our priority will be to create ways in which a local authority or groups of authorities are incentivised to come forward to identify locations capable of sustaining large scale sites for New Towns and Garden Cities.

    With the Lyons Commission we will examine whether and how to give new town development corporations the right to:

     

    • keep increased revenue from business rates as a revenue stream to finance investment - and to use the increased value of land to generate further capital for investment;

     

    • acquire and assemble land;

     

    • and plan and develop the infrastructure needed, bringing together the agencies and utilities who will need to participate in that process to deliver it.


    We should draw on the lessons from the past of how the New Towns were developed after the Second World War by Development Corporations, which had the powers to acquire, own, manage and dispose of land and property; undertake building operation; provide public utilities; and do anything else necessary to develop the New Town.

    But as we concluded when considering this issue in Government, these powers alone are not enough.

    These Corporations generated revenue by selling land and housing, receiving rental income and receiving commercial income.

    However, they needed up front funding to build the infrastructure and housing which could later be sold at a profit.

    George Osborne has shown himself willing to use the Government’s balance sheet to guarantee some house building – but in particular demand through guaranteeing household mortgages.

    And yet we read that the New Towns which you heard about a year ago have stalled.

    The Government is providing guarantees of up to £12 billion for Help to Buy. He should now step up to the plate to back the supply of new houses in New Towns.

    Providing guarantees to Development Corporations could be essential to provide backing for a large-scale growth programme to provide confidence, reduce risk and give credibility to the development.

    We cannot afford to dither any longer - and I cannot see a stronger case for the full throated backing of the Chancellor than a step change in housing supply.

    To do that we will need the full backing of the Labour Government, including the Treasury, for new towns - willing to devolve the powers, determined to provide the resources, and showing the leadership and vision that is sadly lacking in Government at the moment.

    Infrastructure

    And to make this work, working with communities, we also need to make sure we deliver the infrastructure that allows towns to become thriving communities.

    For decades, successive governments have too often ducked and delayed the vital decisions we need to make on Britain’s long-term infrastructure.

    We are determined to change that. And that was why we asked Sir John Armitt, Chair of the Olympic Delivery Authority, to look at how we can better identify, plan and deliver infrastructure for future generations.

    We cannot simply wait until the next general election to implement his proposals in statute.

    So I have today written to Sir John asking him to:

     

    • Produce a draft white paper based on his report, which sets out in detail the policy, administrative and legislative steps necessary to establish and operate a National Infrastructure Commission;

     

    • Explore the advisory input needed in order to deliver a successful Infrastructure Commission;

     

    • And prepare draft legislation to establish the National Infrastructure Commission.


    This landmark reform is vital. And we are determined to work with you – on infrastructure, as well as on skills, planning and housing finance – to build a recovery that is built to last and ensure that more people can own their home and share in rising prosperity.

    Conclusion

    Let me end by saying this.

    We know that house-building can transform our country’s future prospects.

    Because we have seen it before.

    The next General Election will mark the seventieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War.

    Back then, our country faced huge economic and fiscal challenges.

    But the Government of the day, in partnership with this industry, succeed in achieving lasting change.

    And at the heart of it was a bold and radical plan to build more homes.

    As a result, London was reborn as the vibrant, thriving capital city that we know today.

    And a series of successful, economically independent new towns emerged around it.

    We need the same kind of ambition today to solve our housing crisis.

    The only way to achieve the lasting change we need is by working with you to create greater supply of new houses.

    So the next Labour government is committed to:

     

    • building at least 200,000 new homes a year by 2020;

     

    • maintaining high standards across the sector;

     

    • reforming the planning system;

     

    • and investing in the infrastructure and skills we will need.


    This is the best way to help secure a strong, balanced recovery that everyone can benefit from and that is built to last.

    And I look forward to continuing to work with you in the months and years to come.


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    There is a growing nostalgia for Dubbya's brand of “compassionate conservatism”, which increased the role of federal government in education, expanded Medicare coverage and demonstrated willingness to address immigration reform.

    Austin, the state capital of Texas, is something of a delight and a surprise. It is a quirky liberal enclave in a conservative-dominated state that has more in common with San Francisco than with Dallas. At the western end of the city’s 6th Street is the imposing Roman esque Driskill Hotel – once the campaign headquarters of the Democratic president Lyndon Baines Johnson. It was there that he also took his future wife, “Lady Bird”, on their first date. To the east are hipster bars and eateries with live music and Anglophile affectations, such as dartboards and Premier League football paraphernalia.

    Austinites are an eclectic group who include government workers, political staffers, college students and academic staff and an abundance of hi-tech workers. The sprawling campus of the University of Texas (UT) is the focal point of much local intellectual and cultural activity. In the middle of it is the 100,000-capacity Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium. As the city has no big independent sports franchises of its own, Austinites are heavily invested in the college American football team, the Longhorns, who fill out the stadium every game in their burntorange uniforms. “The eyes of Texas are upon you, you cannot get away,” goes their anthem – not, I am told, a reference to the Texas Cryptology Centre in San Antonio and the huge satellites dishes there that are a crucial part of the National Security Agency network.

    Cards on the table

    The Edward Snowden saga was one of the main topics discussed at a conference on the Anglo-American relationship held at UT’s new Clements Centre for History, Strategy and Statecraft, which brought together scholars of the calibre of Philip Bobbitt (a Texas native) with senior officials from the Bush and Blair years. A former head of the NSA in the late 1970s, Bobby R Inman, suggested that the organisation would be best served to release the details of everything it believes Snowden has in order to stop the daily occurrence of more bad headlines and start to rebuild its reputation.

    Unsurprisingly, the long-term significance of the decision to invade Iraq was much debated. The debris from that conflict will shape the Anglo-American relationship for many years. Paradoxically, though, while it had seriously damaged both nations, there seemed to be a consensus that it had not necessarily driven them apart. That the Snowden crisis has brought such a spotlight on Britain’s GCHQ underscores how the institutional interconnectedness between the two nations runs deep.

    Most interesting for a British audience was Michael Gerson’s take on Tony Blair. Gerson, Bush’s bookish former speechwriter, explained just how much Blair’s pre- 9/11 language of liberal interventionism – as exemplified by his Chicago speech of 1999 – had influenced his attempt to articulate Bush’s strategy from 2001. Indeed, Gerson suggested that Blair was the only British prime minister who ever exercised such influence that he could personally edit one of the president’s speeches and have all his amendments incorporated – without exception in the final version.

    Can’t get no satisfaction

    A stolen morning in the LBJ archives provided a reminder that hand-wringing about Anglo-American relations is not new. At a national security meeting in June 1968, the then US secretary of defence, Clark Clifford, announced that the British “do not have the resources, the backup, or the hardware to deal with any big world problem” and that they were “no longer a powerful ally of ours because they cannot afford the cost of an adequate defence effort”.

    Similar things are said today. Yet there has long been a resilient Anglophile thread in US politics. The American ambassador in London at the time, David Bruce, sounded a more optimistic note about the robustness of British society – not least the future impact of the cultural revolution of the 1960s. “British youth has been shouting its dissatisfaction with the old ways for years,” he observed. “They have created an emancipation ‘pop’ culture which has swept the continent and given Britain the cultural leadership of young Europe.”

    Relative values

    It was to his ranch in Texas that George W Bush retreated after his presidency, hosting barbecues for local charities and eschewing the world stage in the way that Bill Clinton embraced it. Yet it is reported that attitudes to him – in the US, at least – might be starting to undergo a marginal improvement after he left office with one of the worst popularity ratings of any president in history.

    Speaking about his new book on the Bush years, Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House (Doubleday, $35), the New York Times journalist Peter Baker attributed this revisionism to two things. The first is that the Obama administration has been unable, or unwilling, to soften many of the hard edges of the American counterterrorism strategy that became so notorious under Bush.

    The second is that the rise of the Tea Party makes Bush appear more moderate and centrist every day. There is a growing nostalgia for his brand of “compassionate conservatism”, which increased the role of federal government in education, expanded Medicare coverage and demonstrated willingness to address immigration reform.

    Bush is said to be alarmed by the radicalism of the Tea Party – not least its entrenching of internal divisions and its apparent preference for American isolationism. He is reported to have personally contributed to the re-election campaign of Senator Lindsey Graham in South Carolina, the latest Republican grandee to face a right-wing insurgency in the primaries. Things are bad for the GOP.


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    Using the social networking site is like "unblocking the sink: necessary, disagreeable – but satisfying when you succeed and positively enjoyable when you hear the waste gurgling away down the drain".

    In a letter to today’s Independent, Peter Hitchens – or as he has dubbed himself, "The Hated Peter Hitchens" -  responded to John Rentoul’s observation that he doesn’t follow anybody on Twitter.

    Rentoul’s column draws a comparison to another famous man who believes himself to be a pariah, calling Hitchens "the Kanye West of British journalism" – alluding to the rapper having over 10 million followers, but following only Kim Kardashian.

    In his reponse - which appears defiantly analogue as a letter in the Independent, but is actually taken from his blog - Hitchens calls Rentoul’s concern "touching" but explains that he considers speaking with people on Twitter comparable to "unblocking the sink: necessary, disagreeable – but satisfying when you succeed and positively enjoyable when you hear the waste gurgling away down the drain". One can only assume Hitchens relishes kitchen chores as he has tweeted more than 5,000 times.

    Anyway, despite his protestations it is clear Hitchens been sucked in and become part of the "mob": in the past two days he has tweeted Owen Jones 15 times in a debate about grammar schools and social mobility, demanding an immediate response in a slightly plaintive manner:

    Jones has yet to oblige. But if you really want Hitchens to reply to you (for whatever reason), your best bet is still to comment on his blog


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    The public recognises what too many politicians do not; that a mass Macmillan-style programme of housebuilding is the only solution to the housing crisis.

    Outside of the Treasury, it is hard to find anyone who thinks Help to Buy is a good idea. Vince Cable, Mervyn King, the TUC, the IMF, the Institute of Directors and the Office for Budget Responsibility have all warned that the scheme –which allows borrowers to take out a 95 per cent mortgage, with the government backing part of their loan –will inflate demand without increasing supply and create the conditions for another housing crash.

    If few doubt that George Osborne’s wheeze is bad economics, the consensus remains that it is smart politics. The logic runs that by widening home ownership, Help to Buy will enable the Tories to win over young, aspirational voters in the same way that Margaret Thatcher’s Right to Buy did a generation ago. In an attempt to emulate the images of Thatcher handing the keys to those who bought their council homes, David Cameron has asked staff to arrange for him to meet those who have benefited from the scheme whenever he visits a marginal constituency. Help to Buy is, he says, “about social mobility . . . about helping people who don’t have rich parents to get on and achieve their dream of home ownership”. He was keen to stress that the average price of a house bought under the scheme is £163,000, with most located outside of London and the south-east, and that three-quarters of the 2,384 applicants are first-time buyers (a quarter, it follows, are not).

    The Tories believe that they will derive another electoral benefit as rising prices create a feel-good factor among existing owners, 45 per cent of whom voted Conservative in 2010. Osborne is reported to have told the cabinet: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom and everyone will be happy as property values go up.”

    This vision of a nation hooked on the narcotic of rising prices is at odds with reality. A poll last month by YouGov for Shelter found that 66 per cent of the public do not want house prices to increase. That figure is up 8 percentage points since June, the period in which Help to Buy was fully launched. This trend holds among outright homeowners (67 per cent of whom want prices to fall or stay the same), Conservative voters (65 per cent), Labour voters (66 per cent), Liberal Democrat voters (73 per cent), readers of the Daily Mail (66 per cent) and readers of the Daily Express (65 per cent). Chastened by the experience of the crash and anxious at the lack of affordable housing for the young, the public no longer views rising prices as an unqualified good.

    If the impression develops that the government is focused on maximising prices at the expense of supply, Help to Buy could prove to be a net negative. The number lifted on to the property ladder will be matched or exceeded by the number for whom the idea of owning their own home moves ever further out of reach. And those unable to buy will resent subsidising mortgages for properties worth up to £600,000 –more than three times the national average.

    The public recognises what too many politicians do not; that a mass Macmillan-style programme of housebuilding is the only solution to the housing crisis. Merely to keep pace with the rising number of households, the UK needs a minimum of 1.5 million new homes to be built by 2020.

    Yet in the same week that ministers lauded Help to Buy, government figures showed that the net supply of housing rose by just 124,270 in 2012- 2013, a fall of 8 per cent since 2011-2012 and the lowest number on record. It is Help to Build, not Help to Buy, that Britain needs. The Tories should not assume that their disavowal of this will go unpunished.


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    When Conservatives meddle with national institutions, they do so at their peril.

    At no point in recent history has the BBC come under more sustained attack. Conservative politicians, right-wing newspapers and free-market think tanks all repeatedly question its future as a universal public-service broadcaster. Three years ahead of the renegotiation of the licence fee, they are already positioning themselves to claim victory.

    It is some measure of the scale of this assault that in his interview with Ed Smith on page 28, Chris Patten can claim without fear of ridicule that “in some newspapers, the BBC gets bashed more than President Assad”. The BBC’s chairman offers a robust and persuasive defence of its role as a national broadcaster. He rightly points to polls showing that only the NHS, the armed forces and the monarchy command more affection and notes: “When people who work for the BBC talk to audiences or people from outside the UK, they’re reminded of what a fantastic national institution it is.”

    As a former chairman of the Conservatives, Mr Patten singles out Grant Shapps, the current holder of that post, for criticism. Mr Shapps’s recent attack on the corporation – a cynical attempt to secure favourable coverage in advance of the general election – recycled some of the most enduring myths about the BBC: that it is biased to the left, that it is poor value for money and that it is largely opposed by the public.

    After accusing the BBC’s diligent home affairs editor, Mark Easton, of inaccurate journalism, following his exposure of ministers’ false claims of “benefit tourism”, Mr Shapps added: “There is an editorial question for the BBC about applying fairness in both directions. That also is a question of credibility for the organisation.” Yet, if anything, it is the left that has cause for complaint. A recent study by academics at Cardiff University found that the BBC gives disproportionate airtime to Conservative, Eurosceptic and free-market voices. More often than not, most notably in its fawning coverage of the monarchy (and, indeed, of the United States), the corporation defers to the establishment and reinforces the status quo.

    Of the licence fee, Mr Shapps inelegantly warned: “£145.50 is quite a lot to pay for everyone in the country who has a TV. It is too much if we don’t see the kind of reforms that all public organisations are used to that the BBC isn’t having to engage with as much as it could do.” That the BBC has not always spent wisely is beyond contention. With its highly remunerated presenters (the so-called talent) and senior executives, it has too often behaved like a private-sector organisation, while enjoying the benefits of being a public-sector body. Yet in both range and quality, the BBC remains remarkable value for money.

    Nor is it true that the corporation has been exempt from austerity. As a result of the six-year freeze in the licence fee and the decision to force it to bear the cost of funding the World Service and the Welsh language channel S4C, it has endured a 16 per cent cut in real terms. Should its funding be further reduced, even more viewers will be forced to pay for private providers such as Sky and BT to watch the programmes and events of their choice.

    Some, most recently Theresa May, claim the BBC is strangling local papers through its free-to-view website. Yet as Mr Patten points out, the absence of a comparable publicly funded broadcaster has not prevented US newspapers from suffering a similar fate.

    It is the BBC’s insulation from market forces that constitutes its enduring value. Mr Patten, a One Nation Conservative of a kind his party no longer produces, displays a Burkean regard for its status as an institution that binds past and future generations. Such views are anathema to Mr Shapps and his allies, Randian dogmatists who long to unleash the market in areas where it has until now been barred. As the experience of NHS reform demonstrates, when Conservatives meddle with national institutions, they do so at their peril.


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    Why is there still support in Chile for a man considered a ruthless dictator by most of the democratic world? Pinochet’s sympathisers say his poor reputation is the result of a manipulation of history.

    Thousands were tortured, killed or “disappeared” during the rule of Augusto Pinochet between 1973 and 1990 and yet even today many believe the late general was the best president Chile has ever had. They are hoping that the presidential and parliamentary elections on 17 November will lead to a revival of his ideals.

    There’s plenty of evidence online of nostalgia for Pinochet. Facebook pages such as the Fundación Pdte Pinochet (Foundation President Pinochet) have achieved tens of thousands of likes and some Twitter users call him “tata” (daddy) or “mi general”.

    The pro-Pinochet movement isn’t limited to the internet. There have also been moves to bring back Pinochet’s political party, Avanzada Nacional. The party’s aim is to represent the 44 per cent of Chileans who backed the military regime in the 1988 referendum. The leadership has postponed registering Avanzada Nacional until 2014, probably because they weren’t able to collect the signatures needed (according to their most recent statement they collected 20,000 but they need 30,000 to register). Its leader, Roberto Francesconi, is running as an independent candidate instead.

    Similarly, hardcore Pinochetistas tried to put forward their own candidate for the presidential election but the man they had in mind, the retired colonel Cristián Labbé, declined to run.

    Why is there still support for a man considered a ruthless dictator by most of the democratic world? Pinochet’s sympathisers say his poor reputation is the result of a manipulation of history. To show “who he really was”, a group of retired military officials – who are among his most ardent supporters – made a documentary, entitled Pinochet, last year.

    They argue two points. First, that Pinochet saved Chile from Cuban-style communism, a handy argument against those who highlight the human-rights abuses during his rule. Second, they maintain he transformed a bankrupt economy into the most prosperous in Latin America. As for political killings, they reason that the 1973 coup prevented many more deaths by averting a civil war and that, in any case, those killed were “Marxist terrorists”.

    Many Pinochet supporters have accused the current rightwing administration of betrayal. When Sebastián Piñera won the top office in 2010, after 20 years of left-wing government, they deemed it the resurgence of Pinochetism. But the president has disappointed their hopes of ending investigations into human-rights abuses and moved towards the left.

    “This government, and the political right in general, want to get rid of the figure of my father. Many were his close allies but now they want to get rid of him,” the dictator’s daughter Lucia Pinochet told the Chilean newspaper La Segunda last year.

    Avanzada Nacional are pinning their hopes on the rightwing presidential candidate Evelyn Matthei. As much as Matthei might like to please Pinochetistas, she also needs support from those who reject the Pinochet years as a dark period in the country’s history. She seems uncomfortable every time a journalist asks about her links with Pinochet: her father was part of his military junta.

    It looks unlikely, however, that Matthei will win. According to opinion polls, she is currently achieving around 22 per cent of the vote, while the left-wing candidate Michelle Bachelet is polling at between 36 and 47 per cent. It seems Pinochetistas will have to wait to advance their beliefs beyond internet forums.


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    Plus: an incident down a dark alley

    According to the prosecution in the Old Bailey trial of Rebekah Brooks, Andy Coulson and others, Brooks and Coulson – once editor and deputy editor respectively of the News of the World– had a six-year love affair. It continued after Brooks moved to edit the Sun and Coulson became NoWeditor.

    Everyone is faintly surprised and shocked but they shouldn’t be. Powerful men once mated with their secretaries (as they were then called) and other junior employees. An important effect of more equal opportunities between the genders is that they now form liaisons – inside and outside marriage – with their professional peers. For example, almost throughout Nicholas Lloyd’s nine-year editorship of the Daily Express, his wife, Eve Pollard, was also a national newspaper editor, latterly at the Sunday Express. Shouldn’t sociologists be exploring the effects of bedroom intimacies on power relations?

    Canary warning

    Michael Heseltine has finally made up my mind on the HS2 rail link. Arguing that we should abandon cost-benefit analysis and go ahead with the project as an “act of faith”, he compares it to the London Docklands regeneration scheme he pushed through in the early 1980s against opposition from cabinet colleagues, civil servants and local politicians. Now, he says, Docklands is home to the gleaming banking towers of Canary Wharf and, if he had forecast such developments, he “would have been carted off by men in white coats”.

    The white-coated ones would have been right. The area is now home to a parasitic class of highly paid financiers who led the country, and much of the world, to disaster in 2008; perverted the British economy so that it now produces almost nothing of value; pushed the price of London housing to levels unaffordable to most local people; and created in east London a wasteland of upmarket chain shops and restaurants that has no cultural, aesthetic or community value.

    If High Speed 2 is going to lead to Canary Wharf-style developments all the way from London to Birmingham, then we should vigorously oppose it.

    Major mistake

    The trial of Brooks and Coulson also focused on why NoW reporters believed that the murdered 13-year-old Amanda “Milly” Dowler, whose mobile they hacked, was still alive. A recruitment agent left a message about a job in the West Midlands, but had dialled a wrong number. “Hello, Nana,” the call began. The reporters convinced themselves they heard “Hello, Mandy”.

    This is an example of how journalists will mishear or misread to an extraordinary degree when they want a story to be true. During John Major’s premiership, a distinguished political editor believed he had discovered that, at an election meeting early in his career, Major spoke in favour of proportional representation. The hack had a yellowing newspaper cutting as evidence and the sensational story ran on the front page. Closer examination of the cutting, the sense of which had been confused by a clumsily positioned sub-heading, showed the words came from the Liberal candidate.

    The political editor received this news on a Swiss mountain top and was only narrowly dissuaded from throwing himself off. A more terrible fate awaited the NoW.

    Indie Python

    The Independent’s latest redesign, its fifth in five years, looks elegant and classy. But need it strain so hard for novelty? “This newspaper has a proud record of innovation,” says the editor, Amol Rajan. “That tradition . . . makes me glad to see our masthead made vertical.” Which sounds a bit like the punchline to a Monty Python sketch. Equally inexplicable is the Balkanisation of the comment section, so that the columnists are scattered through the paper, with byline sketches that make them all look slightly scary. I once took a short cut down a dark London alley with Steve Richards, the paper’s political commentator. Looking at the new sketch of him, I give thanks I escaped unharmed.

    Kettling tactics

    It is now impossible, it seems, to go anywhere without being cross-examined. Collecting a prescription from the pharmacy, I was ushered into a side room and asked questions about what time of day I took the tablets, what I thought they were for and whether I noticed side effects. A few days later, visiting the Cambridge art gallery Kettle’s Yard with my wife, I was asked where I had heard about it, what I was interested in and where else I had been in the previous year. A day later, the same questioner was heading our way at the nearby Fitzwilliam Museum before we rapidly retreated. What happens to all this information? Who analyses it? What do they do with it? And couldn’t they just ask GCHQ?


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    “Bill de Blasio will be a mayor for every New Yorker – and I would say that even if he weren’t my dad.”

    In the evening of 5 November, in the Brooklyn suburb of Park Slope, Bill de Blasio arrived at his victory party to an unusual tune. Political playlists are usually anodyne but de Blasio strode in to the thumping strains of a new pop song, “Royals”, by a singersongwriter from New Zealand called Lorde. The crowd, young, left-wing and delirious with success, went wild.

    De Blasio is seen in Brooklyn – and in Queens and the Bronx – as an antidote to Manhattan’s politics-as-usual. He ran a Robin Hood campaign, promising to be the mayor for “the 99 per cent”, to raise taxes on the super-rich to pay for education and to build plenty of affordable housing.

    “Royals” is about the excesses of the music industry rather than New York but it fits the zeitgeist well. “In a torn-up town,” Lorde sings, her soulful voice draped over a thick bass beat, “we’ll never be royals . . .” It was a neat choice. The song is an anthem of anti-consumerist counterculture that encapsulates de Blasio’s campaign narrative: a surge of progressive energy, the revolt of the outer boroughs against the glittering millionaires of Manhattan.

    It is partly a quirk of circumstance that de Blasio is following two Republican mayors in liberal New York. Both were elected in times of crisis: Rudolph Giuliani in 1993 at the height of an epidemic of violent crime and Michael Bloomberg at the end of 2001 while the dust from the World Trade Center was still settling. In both cases, stability, safety and security were temporarily the most important issues.

    As with Boris Johnson in London, personality is also a factor. Bloomberg is not your ordinary Republican. He infuriates the right and he governs in a European style, a centraliser and a paternalist. He brought in a smoking ban, cracked down on giant servings of unhealthy fizzy drinks, brought in regulation to reduce air pollution and brought the ailing public school system under mayoral control.

    Boris would love to be able to copy Bloomberg’s style but his position is much weaker. New York and London are roughly the same size, with populations of around eight million people, but the mayor of New York has wide executive powers over the city’s education, sanitation, police and emergency services and a budget of $70bn, as well as the ability to levy some taxes. By comparison, the mayor of London controls only the transport and parts of the police authority.

    Bloomberg’s philosophy was to make the city more attractive for the wealthy in order to fund philanthropic policies. It worked but while New York prospered, many chafed at the widening gap between rich and poor. They felt Manhattan had become a playground for the elite; that they were being priced out of their own city.

    Enter Bill de Blasio. Born in Manhattan but raised in Massachusetts, he worked for the Clinton administration before running successfully for city council in 2001, then became the New York public advocate in 2009. That is a highly visible position, a sort of city ombudsman, but has no executive responsibilities, which makes it an excellent place to build a progressive platform without having to deal with realpolitik.

    Yet in the mayoral campaign, it wasn’t de Blasio’s ideology that attracted people’s attention: it was his family. At the beginning of August, de Blasio was still lagging 10 points behind the city council speaker, Christine Quinn, and even half a point behind the scandalmired Anthony Weiner, in the race to be the Democratic candidate.

    Then on 9 August, de Blasio’s campaign ran an ad featuring his photogenic – and biracial – teenage son Dante. It ends, touchingly: “Bill de Blasio will be a mayor for every New Yorker – and I would say that even if he weren’t my dad.” Its effect was sensational. In the next day’s polls, de Blasio leaped ahead.

    After he won the primary, the campaign turned quiet – dull, even. His Republican opponent, a thoughtful but unexciting transport executive called Joe Lhota, failed to capture the public imagination. Just 40 minutes after the polls closed, Lhota called to concede. De Blasio had won by more than 50 percentage points.

    Yet the new mayor-elect already faces a battle. The city’s nearly 300,000 municipal workers have been in deadlock with city hall over pay. Their contracts urgently need renegotiating and there is already a $2bn budget deficit. Finding a settlement will be the first test of de Blasio’s administrative mettle.

    Meanwhile, “Royals” is still at number one in the Billboard charts. “Let me be your ruler,” Lorde sings from a thousand cab radios, melody climactic, beat pulsing. “And I’ll rule, rule, rule, rule.”

    Nicky Woolf writes for the New Statesman website from the US


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    Is it possible to build a fortune cleanly in African telecoms?

    Mo Ibrahim describes himself as an “accidental businessman” but in 2005 he sold his African mobile phone company, Celtel, for $3.4bn. Ibrahim pocketed $1.4bn and set up the Mo Ibrahim Foundation to campaign for better governance across Africa. Since 2007 he has funded the world’s largest cash prize, worth $5m, which is awarded every year to an African leader who has led inspiringly and stepped down voluntarily. For two years, the prize committee has been unable to find a leader worthy of the award.

    I meet Ibrahim in his offices in Marble Arch, central London, where framed photographs seem to cover every flat surface. A few are family portraits but most of the faces are familiar – on the table next to me is Ibrahim shaking Barack Obama’s hand, with the handwritten message: “Thank you for your good work.” Mo Ibrahim was born in Sudan in 1946 but grew up in Egypt. His father was a “modest man, who didn’t have beyond elementary education” and his parents wanted him to take up a career in government or academia, “middle-class respectability in our kind of society”. He worked first at the post office in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, before moving to the UK to study. Business was never part of his plan, but in 1983, when he was teaching at Birmingham University, he was poached by British Telecom.

    Working for BT was a turning point, because it “was a great lesson in how to screw up a business”. Fed up with the firm’s bureaucracy and its slowness to understand the potential of mobile phones, he left BT in 1989, to set up an independent consultancy and then, in 1998, founding Celtel.

    Is it possible to build a fortune cleanly in African telecoms? Ibrahim, who often repeats the phrase that “behind every corrupt politician are 10-20 corrupt businessmen”, says Celtel was able to expand to 14 countries without paying bribes by instituting a rule that payments over $30,000 had to be signed off by the board. This offered protection to local chief executives when they came under pressure from national governments. “In the final analysis, finding a way to do clean business and not to pay bribes actually improves your bottom line,” he says.

    The usually gregarious businessman is unable to hide his irritation when I outline common criticisms of the Ibrahim prize. Some argue it is needlessly large, others say it is pointlessly small: for the average kleptocrat, $5m is loose change. “People rush into these statements without reading what we’re doing,” he replies, energised with indignation. “This prize is not for corrupt people . . . this prize is intended for good people, who – prize or no prize – are good people.” He says the money is meant to enable winners to devote their retirement to charitable causes, rather than being a reward for not stealing in office.

    Ibrahim also hopes the prize will shift perceptions. “The problem we have in Africa is an image problem. Everybody in Europe and the US, they know about our few corrupt leaders, even if they died 50 years ago,” he says. How would I feel, he asks me, if the only European leaders he could name were Hitler, Mussolini and Milosevic? “You would be insulted!”

    Despite Ibrahim’s impressive address book, his award doesn’t (yet) have the same profile as the Nobel Peace Prize. Nor are its previous winners – Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique (2007), Festus Mogae of Botswana (2008) and Pedro Pires of Cape Verde (2011) – well known in the west. But if Ibrahim is hoping that the continent’s rising economic and political elite will start taking responsibility for poor governance and high poverty, it cannot be denied that he is setting a powerful personal example.


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    We need to collect billions of data points for analysis by computers, and the only company in major contention to do this soon is 23andMe.

    Genetic testing is a powerful tool. Two years ago, with the help of my colleagues, it was this tool that helped us identify a new disease. The disease, called Ogden Syndrome, caused the death of a four-month old child named Max. But the rules and regulations for genetic testing in the US, laid down in the CLIA (Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments), meant I could not share the results of the family’s genetic tests with them.

    Since that time, I have advocated performing all genetic testing involving humans such that results can be returned to research participants. This I believe should extend beyond research, and some private companies, like 23andMe, are helping to do just that.

    For as little as $99, people around the world can send a sample of their saliva to 23andMe to get their DNA sequenced. Their Personal Genome Service (PGS) analyses parts of a person’s genome. This data is then compared with related scientific data and 23andMe’s own database of hundreds of thousands of individuals to spot genetic markers, which the company claims “reports on 240 health condition and traits”.

    Today, however, as I had feared, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has ordered 23andMe to stop marketing their service. In a warning letter, FDA said: “23andMe must immediately discontinue marketing the PGS until such time as it receives FDA marketing authorisation for the device.” By calling PGS “a device”, the FDA fears that people may self-medicate based on results they receive from 23andMe.

    Somehow the US and UK governments find it acceptable to store massive amounts of data about their own citizens and that of the rest of the world. They are happy spending billions on such mass surveillance. But if the same people want to spend their own money to advance genomic medicine and possibly improve their own health in the process, they want to stop them.

    There are many diseases that appear to occur in the presence of genetic mutations, with large effect in certain populations. A case in point is that of deltaF508 mutation in the CFTR gene, which is known to predispose people to cystic fibrosis, which causes scarring inside organs.

    The expression of cystic fibrosis in each of these people is highly variable, but the presence of the mutations can certainly raise suspicion for this illness in individuals with any such symptoms. This is particularly the case when there is an already known instance of cystic fibrosis in the immediate family.

    This is why carrier screening in families with diagnosed cases of such diseases is advocated. And yet, such screening is not commonly performed, even though it could decrease prevalence of affected infants.

    Genetic data (or genotype) on its own is of little use. It is the correlation of how those genes manifest in people, which is their phenotype, that makes genotypes useful.

    I dream of a world in which we have phenotype and genotype data on millions of individuals, so that we can really begin to better understand genotype-phenotype relationships.

    Instead, we still live in the medical world described in the Pulitzer prize-winning novel Arrowsmith pubished in 1925, where doctors pretend to know far more than they actually do. The sad fact is that there is no way the FDA can evaluate and regulate each and every genetic variant in the billions of letters which make up the human genome that get variably expressed in trillions of cells in every human body.

    We need to collect billions of data points for analysis by computers. The only company in major contention to do this soon is 23andMe. With FDA’s latest attempt to stop 23andMe, all it is really doing is delaying, or worse stopping, the revolution that today’s medicine desperately needs.

    Gholson Lyon does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

    This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.

    The Conversation


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