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    Paul Conroy, the photojournalist injured in the attack that killed Marie Colvin in Homs, says he "can’t think of a single photo I could take at this moment in time that would increase public awareness.” When will people start taking notice of Syria again?

    One comment has haunted me after a debate I attended last night, hosted by Save the Children and Intelligence Squared. Paul Conroy, the Sunday Times photojournalist who was injured in the attack in Homs that killed Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik, had just been asked about returning to Syria. Conroy, whose leg with severely damaged with shrapnel, isn’t yet mobile enough to return to war zones, and in any case most agree Syria has become too dangerous for journalists – 36 Western journalists are known to be missing, many more may have been kidnapped and are being kept under a media blackout for their own safety. But Conroy had one more reason for not yet going back: “I can’t think of a single photo I could take at this moment in time that would increase public awareness,” he said. 

    The Syrian war is one of the gravest humanitarian crises in living memory – Conroy, who has reported from the Balkans, as well as conflicts in the Middle East, says that it is “by far and away the worst conflict I’ve ever covered”. Around 11,000 children have been killed so far, and the Oxford Research Group has found that children as young as one have been tortured and executed. Many millions more have lost their homes, are going hungry and are living through the terror of war. Polio has returned to Syria for the first time in 14 years, and with medical supplies at dangerous lows and around 60% of hospitals damaged or destroyed (according to WHO) many Syrians will die from disease, as well as from the direct effects of conflict. The UN believes 100,000 have already been killed in fighting. But is there any point in me writing this, or of journalists risking their lives to report on Syria – does anyone care anymore?

    Perhaps it is simply that the full human cost of the Syrian war is too vast to comprehend. Rola Hallam, the Syrian doctor who witnessed the incendiary bomb attack on a school, which featured on a Panorama documentary earlier this year, believes this might be one of the problems. “There’s almost a level of disbelief in the public and in the government about the atrocities that are happening,” she said last night. I understand her point – I re-watched the footage of children running into a field hospital with their clothes and their skin hanging off them, covered in burns, and if I had quite been able to comprehend the full horror of what I was seeing from the comfort my chair, I would have been permanently changed.

    It could also be that people don’t understand what’s happening in Syria. With so few journalists able to operate within the country, Assad’s propaganda campaign has gained strength. Many saw the chemical weapons agreement as a sign that the worst of the conflict was over, forgetting that many are still dying from conventional weapons every day. The story of the Syrian war has changed from being a simple narrative of innocent civilians against the evil Assad regime – the rebels are guilty of war crimes too, and al-Qaeda affiliated groups have joined the fight against Assad, so perhaps people aren’t sure who they’re meant to be supporting any more.

    Then there’s the problem that even if you feel moved to action, no one really knows what to do. Moral disgust is a pretty futile emotion if you don’t do anything with it. Politicians have fallen quiet since the chemical weapons agreement. No one in government is discussing military intervention any more, and in government circles talk of securing humanitarian corridors has gone quiet. What cause do ordinary people in Britain have to rally behind?

    There are few small things you can do. You can research NGOs operating in Syria, and donate to one you feel is making a difference. You can talk and tweet about Syria, and help restart a conversation that will force politicians to moot radical action to get aid into Syria, and to work harder towards securing a peaceful resolution. You can keep yourself informed, so that activists like Rola no longer feel, in her words, that she’s “shouting into a vacuum”. You can learn to care again.

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    New research shows the cuts are biting deepest in the poorest areas in the north and Scotland, with worse to come.

    The cuts continue unabated. As we approach the fourth austerity settlement for local government next month, a new interim report for JRF, from a team at Glasgow and Heriot Watt Universities, analyses the pattern of public spending cuts for England in 2013/14 and offers the first analysis of budget cuts in Scotland. At the same time, a new Audit Commission report confirms that councils serving the most deprived areas have seen the largest reductions in funding relative to spending since 2010/11. In December, another report from LSE will look at the impact of the cuts in London boroughs.

    The cuts are biting deep (spending in England is set to fall by nearly 30% from 2008-2015 and by 24% in Scotland). Cuts in spending power are systematically greater in more deprived local authorities than in more affluent ones, with a difference of about £100 per head in both England and Scotland. The north-south divide in England is £69 per head. A major reason for these discrepancies is the scrapping of many specific grants which predominantly went to the more deprived authorities. As a consequence, the worst effects of austerity are being felt by those councils which are home to the largest concentrations of poorer people.

    Sadly, the bad news does not end there. This most recent study shows that, to date, local authorities of all kinds had largely been successful in directing cuts towards 'efficiencies' - that is, cutting back-room jobs and other savings, in order to make the LA machine leaner and meaner. But that changed in in 2013/14 when more and more cuts were carried out by 'retrenchment' - namely reductions of various kinds on front-line services themselves. What’s more, this trend is set to intensify further in 2014/15. In the three case-study authorities covered in the report, services already affected in these ways include: services for children and young people, arts and culture activities, libraries, leisure centres, street warden and street cleaning services, and children's centres.

    The case study local authorities are trying hard to protect the most vulnerable populations from the impacts of these cuts, and there is evidence that 'pro-rich' services (such as adult education or museums and galleries) have been subjected to severer cuts than 'pro-poor' services (like children’s social care, Citizens Advice and services for homeless people). Despite these efforts, the researchers conclude that the cumulative effect of all the cuts will still fall hardest on the poor, who lack the funds to buy replacement services.

    Is there any good news? The study does highlight the considerable ingenuity used by the case-study authorities to find creative ways of managing the budget gaps they face. But in the meantime, austerity is hitting deprived communities hardest. The way that this is deepening the north-south divide is also clear. Unless we can somehow muster the national will to correct or mitigate these unacceptable divergences, we will continue to reinforce fatal divisions in our society. A society in many ways as divided as that portrayed, so many years ago, in Sybil, or The Two Nations. Disraeli must be turning in his grave.

    John Low is a policy and research manager at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation

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    Underneath the popular insistence that Sinterklaas is just a cosy children’s event, some worrying and ugly sentiments have come to light.

    My mother is from Holland and so, like every Dutch child, I celebrated Sinterklaas every year. According to Dutch tradition, Sinterklaas, or Saint Nicholas, arrives in the Netherlands from Spain each November for a visit that culminates in him delivering sweets and presents to well-behaved children on the night of 5 December. This year, Sinterklaas has sparked a debate so fierce that even the UN has become involved.

    At the root of the controversy are Sinterklaas’s helpers, called the Zwarte Pieten, or Black Petes. “And do you know why Zwarte Piet is black?” I remember my grandma asking me. “It’s because he comes down the chimney to bring you your presents.” This is the story told to most children in Holland, but Zwarte Piet isn’t smeared with soot like Dick Van Dyke after a long day on set. His whole face is painted black and he has thick, painted-on lips, a black curly wig and thick gold hoop earrings.

    It’s a wonder the tradition has survived so long. The Zwarte Piet debate has flared up annually for the past few years, but this year, the UN High Commission on Human Rights wrote to the Dutch government suggesting that the Sinterklaas celebrations could be racist.

    Within days, a Facebook “Pietitie” in support of Zwarte Piet had attracted more than two million likes — in a country of 17 million. The leader of the Dutch far-right Freedom Party, Geert Wilders, tweeted that he would rather the UN were abolished than Zwarte Piet. Prime Minister Mark Rutte issued a statement saying: “Zwarte Piet just is black. I can’t change that.”

    At the biggest Sinterklaas parade, held in Amsterdam on 17 November, small concessions were made on both sides to keep the peace. City authorities decreed that none of the Zwarte Pieten could wear earrings, because these are symbols of slavery. The several hundred protesters were asked to hold a silent protest, so as not to upset children. Journalists reported they weren’t able to interview any of the participating Piets, as they seemed to be acting under the instruction of a “PR-Piet”. At a parade in Groningen on the same day, armed policemen went undercover as Zwarte Pieten in case demonstrations turned violent.

    No one likes their festive traditions tampered with – imagine trying to implement a countrywide ban on Christmas trees in the UK – but emotions over Sinterklaas run deeper. Most Dutch people identify themselves as inherently liberal, yet attacks on Zwarte Piet have been construed as an attack on Dutch identity – which is political dynamite, given the rapid growth of the far-right in recent years. The deputy prime minister Lodewijk Asscher’s insistence that “You can’t say the whole of Holland is racist” has struck a chord with many who feel aggrieved that a beloved childhood tradition has attracted such condemnation.

    The problem is that even if a practice isn’t intended to be racist, it can still be hurtful, discriminatory and, yes, racist. Underneath the popular insistence that Sinterklaas is just a cosy children’s event, some worrying and ugly sentiments have come to light. Organisers hoping to hold the first ever “Rainbow Piet” parade, featuring multicoloured Piets, had to cancel their event in October after receiving death threats.

    Viewed from outside, the Zwarte Piet debate seems baffling and surreal by turns. Yet the emotions it has exposed are very serious indeed.

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    Sure, a gif of a man getting drenched in exploding whale guts is hilarious, but it could have been worse.

    Straight from Buzzfeed, here’s an awesome gif of an exploding sperm whale:

    (Why not listen to some music while it loops?)

    That man in the orange overalls is a fisherman from the Faroe Islands, where that whale washed up. He was trying to cut open the whale’s belly, which might seem an odd thing to do, but decomposing whales are dangerous things. As disgusting as that gut-spill looks, it could have been a far worse explosion.

    Whales have a tendency to explode after they die. As their innards rot, methane builds up in air pockets, and it can reach surprisingly high pressures. Eventually, without warning - kaboom.

    In 2004, bystanders in Taiwan experienced this for themselves when watching scientists loading a dead whale onto a truck so it could be taken to the National Cheng Kung University for dissection and study. Roughly 600 people were splattered with blood and guts.

    The danger of whale explosions means that preventative measures - like cutting into whales to give the gas a way to escape - are common. Pre-emptively exploding the whale into small chunks in a controlled demolition is also used in some countries, as a whole whale can take ages to decompose. The idea is that smaller chunks are more easily eaten by scavengers, and it saves an unpredictable mess later one.

    Explosions like that have been performed in Australia, South Africa, and Iceland over the last decade. However, no whale explosion is an infamous as that which occurred in November 1970, near Florence, Oregon. Authorities there figured that a whale was a bit like a large boulder, so used the same amount of dynamite that would be used when destroying solid rock - 20 cases. According to one expert after the event, they really only needed something like 20 sticks.

    Huge blubber chunks flew through the air, damaging cars and remaining hanging from trees for weeks afterwards. The video of the event was something of an early-00s viral hit when rediscovered:

    The lesson here is clear - if you find a dead whale washed up on a beach, keep a safe distance, and alert someone who knows what they're doing.

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    If art imitated life more faithfully, no one in Eastenders could afford to live in Albert Square.

    Outnumbered is a cutesy semi-improvised BBC sitcom about a family with three kids. The dad (Hugh Dennis) is a teacher; the mum (Claire Skinner) is a part time PA. Exactly how much they earn is difficult to ascertain, because: (a) they're fictional and (b) it's private, but the Brockmans frequently worry about money.

    I mention all this because, despite their whinging, they're almost certainly millionaires.

    Look at their house. It's got three levels, it's at least four bedrooms, and best of all, it's in Chiswick, one of the few bits of London where the city genuinely looks like a Richard Curtis movie. I'm not a surveyor, and valuing a fictitious house isn’t easy, but property websites suggest you're not going to get anything even remotely comparable for less than £1.1 million. Remember that silly sub-plot in which Hugh Dennis is seriously considering taking the kids out of school to go travelling for a year? That makes a lot more sense once you realise this family is absolutely bloody loaded.

    Horsing around in their million-plus home: BBC's Outnumbered sitcom

    These days, those people could not afford to buy that house. Not even close. Taking a generous assessment of the household finances, their home is worth 12 times the family income. Even in 2006 no one was lending that.

    It's easy, with our London-centric media, to get sucked into thinking that British house prices are in the middle of another bubble. That, though, isn’t quite true: by international standards, in fact, our housing isn’t that expensive. Research from Bank of America Merrill Lynch suggests that British homes cost an average of around four times household income. In Australia the multiple is five and a half; in Germany, it’s six.

    London, though, is a different case entirely. The average selling price for a home in the capital is somewhere around the £400,000 mark, while the average household income is something like £50,000. In other words, even taking into account that Londoners earn more, their house prices are twice as expensive. Read across from this to pop culture and you get all sorts of bizarre anomalies.

    Looking at property websites, you can get a fair sense of how much the homes from TV would cost you now. Do so and you’ll find the dingy Croydon flat Mark and Jez share in Peep Show is relatively affordable, at somewhere around the £175,000 mark (lucky, really, since only one of them has a job). The one from Spaced, though, is in a Victorian block in desirable Tufnell Park, placing it way out of reach at nearly half a million.

    Tom and Barbara's place in The Good Life was last on the market for £570,000, but that was back in 2001 before prices started to go nuts. Since then they've risen nearly 150%, so you’d be looking at well over a million now. (Try being self sufficient after you’ve bought that.) Even the Trotters' Peckham council flat, which they almost bought under right-to-buy, would be likely to set you back £200,000 in change (it's only as cheap as it is because mortgage lenders tend not to like tower blocks). It’s an exaggeration to say that this time next year they'll be millionaires, but in the long-term it’s not exactly implausible.

    Perhaps nothing highlights quite how ridiculous the market's got, though, as Eastenders. The exact location of the fictitious Walford is kept deliberately vague, but on the tube map it's somewhere near Bow, where you won't find a three-bed Victorian house for less than £700,000. Albert Square itself is based on Fassett Square, a couple of miles west in Dalston, where you're talking closer to £1 million. Think about that. The houses on show in the ultimate exercise in televised miserablism are conceivably worth a million pounds.

    Ian Beale shouldn't be the only one struggling to find a safe place to sleep on Albert Square.

    Very few of the people portrayed in these shows would today have the faintest hope of buying the homes that they live in. They might own them already; they couldn't buy them now. A realistic version of Eastenders would see the square’s entire population sell up and move to Essex, to be replaced by a bunch of hedge fund managers and hipsters living ten to a house; the family sitcoms of the 2020s will all be set in Northamptonshire ("North Londonshire"), and feature parents who bitch constantly about the cost of train travel and the knackering nature of a two-hour commute.

    What all the means is that the real London is going to look less and less like the one we see on television. Unless something radical changes, even the drabbest bits of the city will be taken over by bourgeois tossers like me, while anywhere even vaguely pleasant will become the domain of the super–rich. I can’t help but think that’s a bad thing.

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    The whole document was designed to highlight the governance-focused nature of modern Scottish nationalism - and largely succeeded in doing so.

    After more than a year of faltering starts, the Yes campaign has had a good week. Last Saturday, 1,100 left wing activists poured into the Marriot Hotel in central Glasgow for the second Radical Independence Conference (RIC).
    Four days later, on the other side of the Clyde, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon launched their long-awaited White Paper on Independence, bringing some policy substance to RIC’s slightly unfocused, grassroots enthusiasm. The RIC crowd - a coalition of young socialists, greens and SNP social democrats - didn’t welcome everything in the White Paper. But they seem to have accepted it as an initial blueprint. The Yes campaign now has a clear point of focus for 2014.
    And the White Paper is nothing if not clear. Over 10 chapters, 650 pages and 170,000 words, it explains the current and future shape of Scotland’s finances, the SNP’s defence, economic and welfare policies and Holyrood’s policy options after Scotland leaves the UK.
    The headline pitch - to provide 1140 hours of free care to all Scottish three and four years olds by 2024 - was quickly and predictably dismissed by the SNP’s opponents as uncosted. But this overlooks the SNP’s broader economic argument, as laid out in pages 65 to 79. First of all, Scottish public expenditure is lower as a proportion of GDP than that of the UK as a whole, which means independence would grant Scotland greater fiscal room for manoeuvre. Secondly, independence would allow Holyrood to make savings, including by substantially cutting Scottish defence spending.
    The third part of the SNP’s argument - that independence will generate a "growth dividend" - may be overly optimistic. But unionists have yet to explain why Scottish growth rates have so consistently lagged behind that of comparable European nations.
    What the White Paper lacks in fresh policy announcements it makes up for in important, if subtle, shifts of emphasis. The SNP says Trident should be removed from Scottish waters within the lifetime of the first independent parliament. This represents a firming-up of its position not, as the Guardian suggested, a softening of it.
    The Scottish government also wants to divide UK debt on the basis of Scotland’s “historical contribution” to the British Exchequer ("historical" meaning from 1980/81, the point at which North Sea oil revenues started rolling in) or according to population share. Previous references to Scotland taking a GDP share of British debt seem to have been abandoned
    Perhaps the most significant feature of the White Paper launch was the weakness of the unionist response. Better Together had promised a "pretty big offensive". Instead, it delivered a stream of platitudinous complaints, the most obviously false of which was that the document "lacked detail".
    These lines were scripted well in advance, which partly explains why they were so flat. Alistair Darling is running out of original ways to attack the SNP’s proposals. Sooner or later, of course, the Scottish electorate will to expect him to produce some proposals of his own.
    There are, nonetheless, a number of troubling inconsistencies in the SNP’s vision. Page 91 of the White Paper states, "An independent Scotland will not replicate the economic structure of the UK". Yet, on Tuesday, the first minister made the case for currency union on the grounds Scottish productivity and employment rates matched those of the UK. The White Paper also reaffirms the SNP’s commitment to a shared system of financial regulation, to "fiscal discipline" and to securing "credibility with the financial markets", all of which are entirely in keeping with the Westminster consensus.
    But none of this is new. The SNP is not a party of the old left, nor is it run by a cadre of tartan libertarians, as some commentators insist. Nationalist economic strategy is essentially Brownite. It assumes revenues generated by a dynamic free market should fund a generous welfare state. Hence the simultaneous pledges to cut corporation tax and deliver Swedish-style childcare provision.
    The White Paper reflects the SNP’s ideological ambiguity. It is a solid but not inspiring prospectus for independence. In fact, the whole document is designed to highlight the governance-focused nature of modern Scottish nationalism - and largely succeeds in doing so. 
    The challenge now for supporters of independence is to marry the White Paper’s pragmatism with RIC’s sense of urgency. One without the other isn’t going to be enough, but together they present a formidable challenge to the unionists increasingly lacklustre and repetitive campaign.


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    It’s easy for the rich and well–connected to think they succeeded through merit.

    I’m a hugely privileged person. Almost all the advantages that can be bestowed upon someone in our society have been bestowed upon me. I was brought up in a family for which money wasn’t really an issue. I lived in a nice place – in leafy, privileged Cambridge – and went to very good schools. State schools, as it happens, but in Cambridge the state schools are remarkably good, and Hills Road Sixth Form College, where I did my A Levels, can compete at an academic level with pretty much all the ‘top’ public schools in the country. I went to Cambridge University. I’m male. I’m white. I’m straight. I’ve always been able to find jobs. I’m married, have a child, have a great job, own a nice home, I’m able-bodied, not suffering from mental health problems and reasonably healthy. I tick almost all the right boxes – and have all the advantages.

    Many more advantages, indeed, than some people seem to want to acknowledge. I grew up in a remarkable family – one of the reasons I felt compelled to write this piece is that tomorrow is the memorial for my father, Martin Bernal, who was himself a quite remarkable man – academic, author, folk singer, campaigner etc.. He died in the summer, and over the last few months I’ve been thinking a lot about what I got from having him as a father – and indeed from having so many interesting people around me so much of my life. It was and is an immense privilege. I grew up in a household where we were expected to read, to learn, to question. We were listened to – well, most of the time – and were given a huge amount of freedom, and included in fascinating conversations. I was instilled with confidence and with a sense that pretty much anything was possible.

    These kinds of things matter – they add a huge, extra layer of advantage to the more tangible ones that wealth so directly provides. They open doors for you – doors that are generally already pretty much ajar to the privileged but shut, locked and bolted against anyone else. They make it far, far easier to take advantage of opportunities – and when you add it to the safety nets that wealth and connections provide they make life much, much easier.

    And yet, somehow, a great many people who are privileged seem to forget this – indeed, they seem to think exactly the opposite. They convince themselves that they have made successes of their lives from raw talent and intelligence and that everyone else who hasn’t succeeded must have failed either because they’re too stupid - as the recent speech of Boris Johnson seems to suggest – or too lazy (as the whole ‘strivers vs scroungers’ agenda supposes) or because they’ve made terrible decisions, can’t budget and so forth.

    I understand some of where they’re coming from. There’s no doubt in my mind that intelligence plays a part in all this – but the part it plays is vastly overstated, and what exactly ‘intelligence’ means is much harder to describe or measure than people seem to think. I know I’m intelligent by the kind of standards that Boris uses – I have a degree in mathematics and a PhD in law – but I also know that this ‘intelligence’ hasn’t been the most important thing in the way that opportunities have come up for me. I know for example that having the words ‘Cambridge University’ on my CV makes people more read further. I know that my family name has made some people in academia more interested in what I do. More than anything else, though, I know that society is ‘designed’ to let ‘people like me’ succeed.

    Three shocks…

    Three events in my twenties put a lot of this into context for me, and have changed the way I’ve looked at things. The first was when I was an accountant, working for one of the biggest accountancy firms in the City of London, in the late 80s. The height of Thatcherism, when greed was certainly seen as good. We’d had a good ‘busy season’, but after a merger of firms I found myself denied a promotion – as did everyone else in my cohort, or so we were told. When I found out that this wasn’t true, and that one person (who happened to have very good connections) had been given this promotion, I was outraged, and started digging around to find out what was going on. I asked all my contemporaries what had happened to them – had they been promoted, what ‘rating’ had they got, how much were they paid and so on. I soon found something much more outrageous than my petty jealousy about having been denied a promotion: every single woman was paid less than every single man. To put it another way, the best paid woman was on a lower salary than the worst paid man. Now this wasn’t anything to do with merit – I’d worked with most of the people, and I knew very well that however you decided to measure things this could not possibly be right. What made it even worse was that when I confronted the partner (male, public school and Oxbridge) about it, he said ‘why do you care, you’re a man’ or words to that effect. That this made me even angrier – and meant my leaving the firm was inevitable – seemed to be close to incomprehensible to him.

    The second was in Burma – I was visiting the country in 1991, soon after leaving my accountancy job, at a time when the government was at its most oppressive and repressive. I had got in on a semi-diplomatic visa (through connections!) and was able to visit much more of the country than the usual tourist packages – travelling up to Mandalay and being shown around the place by a group of young Burmese people, introduced to me through my connections. They’d never met me, but I had never encountered such welcoming, interested, open and even happy people in my life. I had three or four days with them and it changed my outlook on life forever. I had been feeling rather sorry for myself and depressed – but when I looked at these people, living under one of the most repressive governments on the planet, with little opportunity for any of the things that we take for granted, and found that they were able to be so open and welcoming I thought I was being ridiculous. If they can find a way to be happy and interested, how can I possibly be so selfish and self-indulgent myself? When I found out after I returned to the UK that pretty much everyone seen talking to me in Burma – and that would have been most of them, since Burmese military intelligence had spies everywhere – was taken in for questioning after the event, my respect for them grew even more.

    The third was a year or two later, when I was helping out with a ‘peace conference’ for children, in Lillehammer in Norway. We had kids from many, many countries, each with an adult accompanying them. One afternoon, our hosts, Redd Barna Norway (their version of Save the Children) arranged a session for the adult chaperones from the African countries. There were about 30 of them, from memory, from all over Africa. The question the Norwegians asked was ‘how can we help you?’ It was all very well-meaning, but when I saw the faces of the audience, I was surprised – and when I heard the answers they gave even more so. It wasn’t ‘give us more aid’ or ‘send us more machinery’ or ‘give us training in medicine’ or anything like that. It was, instead, simple and unequivocal: leave us alone. We don’t want your aid – and we don’t want your multinationals taking over our country, your arms companies selling weapons to our governments and the various opposition groups. Leave us alone. The hosts were shocked – but every single one of the representatives said the same. I’m not suggesting they were ‘right’, or that this was in any way a representative sample, but the event still shocked me. Our patronising paternalism was not what was wanted – and we had to think all over again.

    What does this mean?

    When I read about Boris’s speech, and when I think about all the patronising, elitist, offensive stuff that this government and pretty much every government I can remember have said, it makes me angry. Things like accusing poor people of not knowing how to budget, how to cook, how to feed their kids, how to make good decisions, or of being lazy, stupid etc. Suggestions from ministers that they could easily live on the amounts people get in benefits. Suggestions that people don’t try hard enough to get jobs. Suggestions that they don’t work hard enough. They all make me angry – and they make it clear to me that most of those speaking don’t know how privileged they are – and what the consequences of that privilege are.

    For me, there are a few things that I try to remember. The first is the most obvious – that I’m deeply privileged and deeply lucky. The second is that I still don’t know quite how privileged and lucky I am – because so much of the privilege is hidden and built into the system, so much that those who are privileged can’t see it. Until I asked, I never realised that all the women were being paid less than all the men. Until I went to Burma and met those Burmese people I didn’t realise how it was possible not to feel sorry for yourself for the smallest thing. Until I listened to the African people at the conference, I didn’t realise quite how many assumptions I was making about how to solve the world’s problems.

    That, in the end, is the most important thing. Whoever you are, however intelligent and enlightened you are, you don’t know what life is like for other people. You don’t know how things are for them, how hard it is for them. I don’t know what it is like to be really poor, for example. I’ve been poor – but I’ve been poor and still known I have family that would support me in the end, that I have the kind of education and experience that can help me out, that I’m healthy and so forth. Men don’t know what it’s like to be women. Straight men don’t know what it’s like to be gay in the society we have today. Able-bodied people don’t know what it’s like to have a disability. White people don’t know what it is like to be black. Wealthy people don’t know what it’s like to be poor.

    There’s an old saying: ‘with great power comes great responsibility’. There’s a degree to which it’s true, and it certainly seems that the current lot of powerful people are thoroughly irresponsible. I’d like to add another – though it’s deeply wishful thinking. With great privilege should come great humility. Those of us who are privileged – like me, and like Boris – should be able to find that humility. To know that we really don’t know what it’s like to live without our privilege. We can try to imagine – but we’ll never really succeed. And we should know that we’ll never really succeed – and be far, far more willing to listen properly to those who do know it. Most of all, though, we should know when not to talk as though we had all the answers. We should know when to shut up.

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    Those urging the party to avoid radical talk of reforming capitalism and remaking society fail to understand the deep-rooted wish for change.

    By rights, 2014 should be a dud year in the political calendar, a phoney war prefacing the resumption of full hostilities in the election year to follow. That’s perhaps how Cameron and Clegg envisaged it as they cut the deal on a fixed term parliament that they hoped would let the economic cycle turn and the prospect of vote-grabbing giveaways hove back into view. Of course, that’s not how it’s played out.

    As far as Labour is concerned, 2014 is the year when we push through the onslaught from Crosby and Cameron, to define the government we hope to form and the change we hope to be. We are confident that we will withstand this Lynton-led assault, thanks not least to the strength, determination and bloody-minded resilience of Ed Miliband. Yes, it will be tough.  But it is our very success so far in sloughing off Crosby’s slurs and connecting with the British people on the issues that matter to them – the cost of living crisis, above all else – that points the way forward. Now, some of those commentating on our party advise us to limit the Tories’ scope for attack by narrowing the political front on which we are engaged, to "shrink the offer" as we approach the business end of this parliament. But those calls will be resisted and rejected, because they fail to understand the deep-rooted wish for change, for another way of doing things, that is so widely felt across our country.

    The logic of this marketing jargon is simple. Don’t frighten the horses with radical talk of reforming capitalism and remaking society, just lead them gently to water and, on current form, they’re likely to drink from our well. Yet the reason Ed Miliband’s Labour Party is reconnecting and rebuilding is precisely because of the boldness with which Ed has identified the core challenges which face our country and the radical ambition he has shown to address them. That’s what he did when he took on Murdoch and the Mail’s slur against Ralph Miliband, articulating the commonplace conviction that too often our press does not live up to the values of the British people.

    That’s what he did when he coined the term 'squeezed middle', finding words that resonate because they are the truth for the vast majority of working men and women in our country. And that what he does when he talks of reforming capitalism, reflecting a widespread and deeply felt discontent with our unbalanced economy and the divided society and shrunken politics it has created. People may not be massing at the barricades in Britain, but they know Ed Miliband speaks for them when he says we can do better than this. And they want us to show them how.

    And that, in essence, is the great challenge that 2014 poses for Labour.  It means longsighted ambitions, like a million new homes and a million green jobs. It means debunking old orthodoxies, such as the claim that you can’t buck the market, as we will do when we break up energy companies and freeze the bills. And it means having the faith of true progressives in the innate ability and good hearts of the great majority of British people and so investing in them: in their businesses and their skills, in their families and communities, in every part of our One Nation.

    Far from a phoney war, 2014 is a critical period for Labour. It will be a year when, in stark contrast to the smear tactics and stunted ambition of Crosby and Cameron, we will expand our positive message for Britain, through practical policies, like the energy freeze or the Living Wage. It will be a year when we continue to set the agenda for a fairer economy and a more equal society. It will be a year when we help the British people to find hope once again, with a Labour Party that is the people’s party once more.

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    A Kumari, or living goddess, in Nepal, has spoken out about what it's like to be worshiped and then return to life as a mere mortal.

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    "We're not really here!" yell Man City fans.

    Hurrah, another long weekend without the Prem is over. How I hate it, how time hangs, like being a teenager again. Why do they do it? The answer is international football: they close down the Prem and the Championship, which means the loss of 22 games, so that we can all suffer watching Roy’s Boys being humiliated in a friendly by Chile.

    It looked liked men against mice, with Spalling stood towering over three titchy Chileans, till they started playing, running rings round him. England really are lumps. The only reason they got through their World Cup group was by being the least lumpen.

    At least in the other friendly, against Germany they managed to pass to each other – now and again. So over the weekend I watched a lot of rugby, including England-New Zealand at Twickenham, where my eyes alighted on a perimeter advertising hoarding that said, “Made of more”.

    What the feck does that mean? No clue as to the product being sold. Was it a song, a biscuit, a religion, a tantric sex potion?

    All season in football we have been bombarded by these meaningless slogans, which seem to be copied from the stupid messages you see on food packets, such as “Chosen by you”.

    It began with Barclays saying “You are football – thank you”, which I thought was just a passing piece of cute, but dear God, it’s never stopped. At every Prem ground, it constantly flashes up.

    Then there is “Hello Tomorrow”, which I saw flashing at the Emirates. Something all fans can relate to but what is it selling ? The Sun newspaper? Faith healing? A new car ? (I did actually find the answer to that one: Emirates Air. I suppose it does make a sort of sense.)

    But “Make it Matter”, which I saw flashed up at Spurs, has still not revealed itself, nor has “Be One With it”. Both phrases could cover anything. Or nothing.

    “Are You Watching?” was a good one, making you want to find out, but I gave up and looked away by the time it explained itself.

    “Open Your World” was constantly flashing on a hoarding during a Euro game, the only clue being a little red star, with no other wording. I fear it might have been for some nasty lager.

    Spurs’s own club slogan, which they have up everywhere, is “To Dare is to To Do”, which I always read backwards: “To Do is to Dare”. It makes just as much sense and is a better exhortation. Yes, I know it comes from the Latin audere est facere, I did do O-level, but the Romans could be just as flip and glib as any modern copywriter.

    They are, of course, taking the piss, having fun, sitting around thinking up pretentious phrases that mean bugger all, but which, with a bit of luck, people will find lodging in their brains and always associate with a certain product – if, that is, they ever discover what the product is. Which is a good joke in itself.

    We have now got to the stage of the season where the fans have cottoned on to the silliness of the slogans they are being bombarded with at every game. The best one so far has come from the Man City fans who have taken to bouncing up and down and yelling, “We’re not really here!”

    Now, that is funny. It reminded me of a slogan I saw painted on the side of a Brighton beach hut once that read, “I feel a bit normal today”. Hmm, why did it remind me of that? No connection, really.

    Some slogans make perfect sense, as long as you know the history and the context.

    At Chelsea there is always a painted banner that says “Born is the King”. It refers to – er – I’m not sure.

    Used to be said about Kerry Dixon. Do Chelsea fans now say it about John Terry or Lampard or possibly Drogba? You have to have been there.

    Columns can also have confusing titles. Is “The Fan” about Lady Windermere, that awfully good fan museum in Greenwich, or sports fans – in which case, which sport ? All pretty meaningless, really . . .

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    The fomo is strong with this one.

    ‘‘Everything happens so much” is the most poignant thing ever tweeted by an artist pretending to be a spambot. The cult Twitter account Horse_ebooks alluded to one of the most persistent problems of middle-class modern life – Fear of Missing Out.

    “Fomo” is that feeling of panic that rises in your offal every time you flick through the Guardian Guide and realise you failed to get tickets for that immersive theatre “experience” involving hens in trousers. But no matter how much any given straight person is affected by Fomo, I can guarantee that lesbians get it ten times worse. Fomo is the voice in my head that, every year, manages to convince me that if I go to Gay Pride, I won’t end up standing in the rain, sipping a can of Strongbow and harbouring a disquieting level of resentment towards rainbows.

    Imagine you’re a bell-ringer. You’re quite happy being one – it’s how you get your frissons. You’re so into bell-ringing that you only date other bell-ringers. But how do you go about meeting others with such an eccentrically specific raison d’être? Well, you subscribe to Campanology Today. You find yourself trudging along to every bell-ringing-related event imaginable: the bell-ringers’ ball, singles night at the Ding Dong Society, a campanological trip to Alton Towers.

    Thing is, you don’t really want to go on log rides with other bell-ringers. All you want to do is ring bells. But the tyranny of hype combined with your overpowering need to find a lovely bell-ringing life partner has left you with a dire case of Fomo.

    Perhaps lesbians aren’t as rare a breed as bell-ringers. But there are relatively few of us compared to, say, straight men called Clive. This means that I end up at lesbian book clubs, tea parties and box socials, in the vain hope that I might find a wife. Just like the frustrated bell-ringer, all I want to do is be a lesbian in peace without having to make a concerted effort to hang out with other lesbians. But how can I possibly not go to that queer vegan baking seminar, when a Sixties Mia Farrow lookalike who’s into exotic cheeses might be there?

    When I was at university, my freshers’ week Fomo prompted me to join one of the many socialist societies. When the socialists tried to make me go and see a Michael Moore film with them, I hastily unjoined. What I should have learned from my brief flirtation with student politics is that Fomo should never, under any circumstances, be obeyed. If you find yourself in a converted abattoir perusing tampon sculptures, the chances are you’ve given in to a severe attack of Fomo: it is self-aware and it wants, more than anything else in the world, for you to do stupid and pointless shit. Ask yourself, if #JumpOffaBridge was trending, would you do it?

    If I’m entirely honest with myself, I don’t want to pay money to see hens in trousers. To quote my mum’s astute analysis of anything cultural: “It’s all just wankers doing wank.” Maybe I’ve come to terms with my Fomo. And perhaps the next time I’m invited to sew political tapestries with other gay women, I’ll remember that very few things are actually worth doing.

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    What lacks in this latest incarnation is, bizarrely, humanity.

    Complicite’s The Magic Flute
    London Coliseum, WC2

    Everyone’s at it. Michael Grandage, Carrie Cracknell, Fiona Shaw, Robert Lepage – even the NT’s director-in-waiting, Rufus Norris, has had a go. Opera, for so long theatre’s unpopular cousin, has reinvented itself as the dramatic genre of the moment. When Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis were spotted at a recent London premiere, it suggested a trend had turned into a full-on fashion. But why?

    “Opera is a potential car crash coming at you from every side,” says John Berry, English National Opera’s artistic director. Along with the Met’s Peter Gelb, Berry is one of the pioneers bringing theatre-makers into the opera house and he is familiar with the genre’s challenges for newcomers. But even the rigid schedules, lack of previews, singers who might or might not be able to act and creaking plots haven’t deterred theatre’s finest. This month, while Fiona Shaw’s The Rape of Lucretia tours England for Glyndebourne, Complicite’s Simon McBurney will be back at the Coliseum with a new Magic Flute, his second collaboration with ENO.

    McBurney is used to enjoying the paradox of complete control and artistic freedom with his company, creating extraordinary multimedia theatre pieces that defeat genre, logic and expectation. Why would he want to submit to the notorious restrictions of opera? “It’s the music – the way it can touch you, shift your inner life,” he says. “You can achieve moments of theatricality that are beyond anything you can create in other forms of theatre.” For McBurney, opera is a victim of its own history and success: the repertoire is comparatively small but immensely popular – and so familiar are classics such as The Magic Flute that we now risk losing their original energy under the layers of conventions and traditions that have calcified on their surface.

    “I want to know whether it is still possible to be surprised by The Magic Flute,” he tells me. “In its performance history certain theatrical ticks and habits are repeated over and over again so people think they are part of Mozart’s original conception – but which aren’t at all. I keep returning to the idea of what it must have been like to see the work at its premiere.”

    This is the sentiment driving Berry and Gelb, who see directors with no background in opera as fresh pairs of eyes untainted by its traditions. Fiona Shaw’s Figaro at ENO was a delight from the moment she released its buzzing overture from the lid of a harpsichord, along with an enraged wasp. Michael Grandage’s Billy Budd for Glyndebourne was brutal, cutting deeper than any productions in recent memory. But the failures have been equally great: Rufus Norris’s confused Don Giovanni for ENO in 2010, Robert Lepage’s baffling Ring Cycle for the Met.

    What it usually comes down to is the music itself. Directors don’t necessarily have to understand or even read music, but there has to be an instinct for that peculiar relationship at opera’s core – the “extraordinary double helix of music and drama,” as McBurney puts it. Thanks to practitioners who consider themselves “theatre makers”, crucially, rather than directors, opera’s inner tensions and rival agendas are increasingly coalescing. New productions are conceived as a whole, a single unified gesture of sound and movement; theatre has pushed opera to extend its dramatic range, striving both for new naturalism (Carrie Cracknell’s Wozzeck for ENO) and more extreme artifice (La Fura dels Baus’s Le Grand Macabre).

    Is it still possible to be surprised by The Magic Flute? In the case of McBurney’s production, there’s such a weight of invention, such a conscious attempt not to succumb to convention or cliché, that the director risks losing the emotion of Mozart’s opera in the babel of special effects. A Foley artist generates sound effects in an onstage box; paper birds miraculously swoop and dive, manipulated by suited chorus members; the trials of fire and water terrify and amaze in equal measure.

    This is truly a magic flute; what it lacks, bizarrely, in its latest theatrical incarnation is humanity – the real emotion that is concealed behind these storybook characters. It’s something Mozart’s music never forgets, even at its most fanciful. Opera is learning so much from theatre. But there are still, it seems, just a few things that opera can teach it in return.

    Complicite’s “Magic Flute” runs at the London Colisseum until 9 December

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    Can Caroline remain headmistressily aloof – and will Dimbleby ever stop talking?

    Radio 4

    “Hello Caroline! I am in fact on the lanes in a beautiful part of the garden of England on my way to Chartwell, the former home of Sir Winston Churchill, and he loved it because. . .” David Dimbleby is trailing that evening’s Any Questions on PM (15 November, 5pm) and is as joyous and unstoppable as Toad of Toad Hall. “The view from the house,” he burbles, “of which Winston is reported to have said [adopts an arch Churchill impression] ‘A day away from Chartwell is a day wasted . . .’”

    The presenter Caroline Quinn giggles nervously, immediately followed by a very Quinn sigh: the one that indicates she’d much rather be talking about famines and prison camps. The names on the panel tonight, that’s all she needs to know. David launches into the cast list, eking fizz from the words “Jeremy Hunt” and “GP contract” but soon he’s off-piste again and ragging Quinn. “Are all the people who run the country toffs? Horsemeat for Sunday roast, anyone?! 8pm this evening!”

    Really, that ought to have been it – this was a trail after all, a mere head round the door. A mental image of the 75-year-old Dimbleby submitting to the tattooist’s needle – exposed torso and shoulders covered in a white fuzz as wiry and persistent as spill-proof carpeting – was by now the charging elephant in the room. I have it on good authority that Mrs Dimbleby is absolutely raging about that tattoo. Apoplectic. Although you’d never have guessed it from her husband’s jouissance. He was going off all over the place: “Anything could happen!” he gushed and then cheekily narrowed his voice to the sharpness of a pin easing a winkle from its shell. “Could you imagine doing that?”

    Caroline frowned. Getting an anatomically incorrect Scorpion tat or eating a horse? Must she answer, or could she remain headmistressily aloof and hope he’ll just go away? “Could I imagine it? Hem, well, I think I’d rather leave that to the imagination.” Quinn’s “leave” was ruinously stern, closing all routes to compromise. Although Dimbleby was still gassing away when the producer just faded him out, like someone taking a turn around the lawn at a country party and being backed into a ha-ha.

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    Go on a Tinder date and chances are you’ll get what I got: one free drink and an evening with a man called Aristoteles who spoke in hipster-cliche speak as if he was a living dating profile.

    Ride the underground in London and you will soon be confronted with the wallpaper of dating site adverts that adorn its filthy interior. ‘Katie and Ben met for a quick coffee in between the Monday morning meeting and the working lunch!’ these adverts scream. ‘Look at their beautiful yuppie faces, temporarily stretched from their usual expression of stress and fear into forced grins for the benefit of the camera! If you, too, are overworked and alone in your ridiculously overpriced Canary Wharf apartment, join now for a very reasonable fee. You can buy happiness.’

    Such dating portals for young professionals living in the rat race have proliferated in the last few years. The stigma of online dating is dropping off as the generation who grew up embroiled in social media enter Real Adulthood (not the adulthood that technically exists between the ages of eighteen and twenty-one in university halls, but the kind incurring fast-paced jobs and H&M suits and perpetual loneliness.) Canadian-owned and astronomically successful free dating website was launched in 2003 and by 2008 was being profiled in The New York Times, as journalists openly wondered how founder Markus Frind managed to purge 30 per cent of its customers for inactivity per year and yet double the number of members overall. As of May 2013, PlentyofFish had 3.3m daily users and, 70 per cent of its traffic was coming from mobile phones.

    It’s no surprise that dating sites took to the app store like so many ducks (or plenty of fish) to water. Online dating had become its own PR man, rebranding itself from the bastion of middle-aged divorcee loneliness into the smart solution for fast-paced young lives.

    If you’re a busy person – probably a 25 year old on an intern’s ‘expenses only’ wage - typing your fingers to the bone in the City every night, investing time in navigating an even slightly complicated website is too much. If you don’t want your passing employer to see tangible proof of your loneliness over your shoulder, you’ll also have to wait until you’re home at antisocial hours after a gruelling day. Reading likes and dislikes, movie tastes and music tastes, is time-consuming.

    What’s even easier and more accessible? Scrolling through pictures on a smartphone. And this is exactly the idea behind Tinder, an app which works by connecting with your Facebook and displaying four (carefully chosen) photographs of you to potential suitors within a few miles’ radius. The GPS on your phone links you up with the users nearest to your location, and you click ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ in response to whether you like or dislike what you see. Both clicked ‘Yes’? An inbox opens, and you’re allowed to message each other, potentially to set up a date or even, if you’re feeling edgy, a one-night intimate encounter. Often compared to gay hook-up app Grindr (because of its combined subject matter and GPS capabilities), Tinder carries the illusion of being a little bit safer because of the Facebook connection and a little bit more respectable because of the fact that both parties have to agree to contact.

    Essentially, Tinder is shopping for partners. You can scroll through hundreds of faces as you procrastinate on your morning commute, or during a tedious lunch hour al desko. Purely in the interests of research, I have the app myself, and can testify that a depressing amount of men have the sentence ‘Let’s just say we met in a bar’ attached to their picture. If it’s not that – for there is a very small space for text, which hardly anyone ever uses – then it’s facile little idioms like ‘Life’s too short – do everything once!’ (I personally rejected two people making use of that quotation in one half hour ‘browsing’ session.)

    Love is now a capitalist enterprise, and Tinder is the Tesco of the dating mall: cheap; convenient; predictable produce. Go on a Tinder date and chances are you’ll get what I got: one free drink and an evening with a man called Aristoteles who spoke in hipster-cliche speak as if he was a living dating profile (‘What brought you to London?’ ‘Curiosity.’ ‘What do you do for a living?’ ‘I work’) before attempting to kiss me as I stood unamusedly in a pile of abandoned McDonald’s fries on Essex Road. Men now post their height next to their photographs, so common is it for a woman’s first question to be ‘How tall are you?’ Gap year photos of recently graduated students with baby tigers abound (guilty.)  And then there are the faintly misogynistic monologues that accompany some profiles – one man who was ‘matched’ with me had the following paragraph after a lengthy description of himself: ‘Don’t be one of those dullistas who finds it awkward to summarise her ‘personality’ in prose. You may be daddy’s little unique snowflake but saying that makes you sound inarticulate, not refreshingly honest about your ‘personality’.’ Why in both cases the word ‘personality’ was presented in inverted commas seemed to suggest that he wasn’t entirely convinced women had personalities at all.

    For something which is intended to make lonely people less lonely, there’s something very depressing about Tinder – and it goes beyond the natural consternation an awkward-looking person naturally feels when realising that the only dating market they have time to enter is entirely looks-oriented. Something feels vaguely dystopian about its business model: created because of the underpaid and overworked alone-in-a-crowd masses; successful because it operates through the smartphone, itself an instrument of isolation; endlessly profitable because it’s tailored to a conglomerate’s vision of savvy urban twentysomethings who bid on boyfriends and collect girlfriends convenient to their lifestyle. And as Businessweek pointed out, Tinder is no start-up’s bright spark: it was crafted in a lab sponsored by IAC/InterActiveCorp, owners of and overall big boys of the ad-driven online dating playpen.

    From a technological standpoint, it’s a nice app built mainly around existing APIs and smartly packaged up like a video game. This entertaining element has meant that people are more than willing to pass it around their friends on a Friday night; it’s undeniably fun, when you disconnect from the fact that the people are real. And it’s an undeniable social media accomplishment, when you ignore the fact that it lacks any great degree of technical innovation or creativity.

    They say that the course of true love never runs smooth. The problem with Tinder is that once you’ve evened out all of those natural contours, it ceases to look like love at all.

    Instead, it just looks like a big, iPhone-shaped marketing device tailored to a sad and uniquely (dis)connected generation.

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    The truth may not make for a headline-grabbing story, but it's important.

    What is the correct scientific reaction to the disaster in the Philippines? It’s certainly not to say, “I told you so,” and bring up the bogeyman of climate change. Invoking the science of altruism would be a much better response.

    It has never been more tempting to draw a link between extreme weather events and climate change. Politicians often do it. In his 2013 State of the Union speech, Barack Obama cited Hurricane Sandy and raging wildfires as indications of what would happen if we ignore the “overwhelming judgement of science” and fail to mitigate the consequences of rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. In reality, however, no one has succeeded in making a causal link between any extreme weather event and global warming.

    The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), published in September, does claim that the climate has been warming in exactly the way we’d expect, given the amount of carbon we have pumped into the atmosphere. It’s also at least 90 per cent certain that human activity has given us more hot days and fewer cold days. It is less probable (66 per cent) that the increased number of heatwaves over the past century is down to human influence on the climate.

    Yet scientific observations tell us nothing about our impact on hurricanes. All we can say is that we have seen an upward trend in the number of cyclones in the North Atlantic since the 1970s.

    This is hardly a headline-grabbing story – and it’s not as compelling as the news about the Filipino diplomat Naderev Sano, who is on hunger strike in solidarity with his stricken compatriots. He’ll start eating, he says, when there are meaningful agreements on the table at the UN climate change conference taking place in Warsaw between 11 and 22 November. Sano conceded that no single weather event can be linked to climate change but added that his country “refuses to accept a future where super-typhoons will become a regular fixture”.

    His concerns are shared by the growing proportion of Americans – not to mention a large number of scientists – who believe that global warming is affecting their weather. It’s frustrating: a provable link between global warming and humanitarian disasters would be an irrefutable argument for action on climate change.

    We could choose to look beyond the IPCC’s conclusions but it’s not clear that this would be a sensible strategy. A couple of seasons in which predicted hurricanes don’t materialise could be used by climate change deniers as evidence that the science is unreliable.

    Because of this, right now, rather than stretching the truth about the science of hurricanes, there’s value in putting science from a completely different field to work. We still don’t know why altruism exists: acts of kindness towards people you do not know and are not related to don’t make sense in a mechanistic, gene-driven biology.

    What we do know is that acts of altruism inspire other people to do the same. Researchers from Yale University carried out experiments to test human reactions to witnessing generosity and learned that we are highly motivated to perform acts of kindness when we witness similar kindness in others. The best scientific reaction to the havoc wreaked on the Philippines is not to shout about climate change but to give money to the disaster relief fund and then make sure you tell others what you did.

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    The merits of the Channel 4 model and the Cavendish Laboratory.

    It has been liberating to exchange the BBC bunker in Portland Place for the bracing air of Cambridge. Some colleagues asked whether I’d miss the newsroom on a busy day and the answer is emphatically no. As a newcomer to Cambridge, I’m knocked out by the city and its people and by what the university achieves, and it’s impossible not to have a song in your heart as you cross the bridge from the Backs into King’s College on a fresh autumn morning. I can say what I think now, too, which is cheering after 30-odd years of friendly corralling by BBC minders.

    Licence to shrink

    That was the spirit in which I wrote a piece for the Times a couple of weeks ago suggesting that in tough times the corporation could still do its job while being slightly smaller. Deviation from past orthodoxy is as welcome to some former colleagues as a cat bringing in a mangled sparrow but there was plenty of support too, including some from unexpected internal sources. The brickbats seemed to be about the principle of criticising the BBC rather than the argument itself.

    So let me be clear: I believe wholeheartedly in the BBC. But it’s daft to assume you can only be counted as a supporter if you think the corporation should expand still further or that it should have the whole licence fee forever. The best long-term strategy may well be for the BBC to concentrate on doing its core mission very well indeed, funded to the level of at least £3bn a year, and to foster plurality. A small additional slice of the licence fee could support other public-service media.

    Energy for change

    It’s pretty obvious that there’s a risk of homogeneity when one broadcaster, however good it is, has so much of the news market. The BBC is estimated to have around 70 per cent of both television and radio news consumption, and the question may not be about veering to the left or to the right but simply whether too much of the output has the same world view. Earlier this year a report for the BBC Trust raised a number of themes it suggested had been under-represented on the BBC airwaves. Most were from the right of the spectrum, but two were: “Britain was a better place to live when the trade unions were stronger and more able to represent the views of working people” and “electricity, gas and water are essential services which should be compulsorily taken back into government ownership”. With the latest poll reporting that 68 per cent of the British people favour renationalising the energy companies, has that opinion been conspicuously enough represented across the multitude of BBC platforms and services?

    Familiar Patten

    So Chris Patten was right in last week’s NS to say the BBC isn’t run by a bunch of Trots, though it’s not exactly a Ukip convention either. Patten was described in the piece by Ed Smith as finding himself “in a peculiar position: as both watchdog and cheerleader in chief”. Just substitute “impossible” for “peculiar”. The Grant Shapps case illustrates the point. Patten as cheerleader rightly swipes away the Tory chairman’s criticism of a piece by Mark Easton; but Patten is presiding over the regulatory body that has to rule on complaints about that report that are brought by Shapps or anyone else. This points to the challenge in the BBC’s current review of the relationship between the trust and the executive, and the corporation’s friends should hope it is capable of radical recommendations.

    One simple solution would be to transfer the chairman from the trust to the executive board so that he becomes what Patten has always seemed to want to be: unambiguously chairman of the BBC. The trust or Ofcom then become equally clearly the regulator, in line with the Channel 4 model – and in the same way that the chairman of Thames Water is embedded within the company and not sitting forlornly over at Ofwat.

    Yes, we Cam

    Thoughts about BBC governance are happily far removed from the new day job. I don’t think there’s anything more rewarding than meeting new generations of students and getting a sense of their potential, both here and at Bishop Grosseteste University in Lincoln, where I chair the council. For people like me who had the free tuition and student grants of the 1970s, it’s sobering to see the scale of the financial burden today’s 18-year-olds are facing. Yet as I’ve visited parts of Cambridge on familiarisation tours, it’s impossible to miss how valuable a university like this is to the country.

    I’ve been to a lecture about pioneering treatments of breast cancer, seen nanotechnology creating better solar panels at the Cavendish Laboratory – and I became a “born-again” historian wandering through the Churchill archives and looking at the original text of the “Finest Hour” speech. If you’ve been used to enthusing about the value of a Saturday night television programme, stepping outside the media bubble gives a perspective on what really matters.

    Transport of dismay

    Having sung the praises of Cambridge, I can’t avoid one criticism. Buses seem to be an endangered species in the city. I assume that’s partly because of the hordes of bicycles but there’s no bus journey for what’s otherwise a 35-minute walk from Selwyn College and its nearby university buildings to the railway station; and the one bus that does trundle outside doesn’t operate at weekends.

    By way of compensation, however, Cambridge seems to have more minicabs than anywhere else on earth. Certainly when you phone for a taxi and they say “five to ten minutes”, this is one place where they turn up in three or less, defying all known rules of minicab phone operators and prompting speculation that fleets of minicabs are lurking just out of sight and waiting for the call to come. This is fine, except for those who can’t afford a tenner a journey or for anyone worried about carbon emissions. Perhaps it’s time for the bright minds here to reinvent public transport?

    Roger Mosey is master of Selwyn College, Cambridge

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    So much blame is heaped on Hollande that it is hard not to feel sorry for the amiable back-room party manager who, his friends say, still cannot believe his good fortune in landing the presidency last year.

    Forecasts of insurrection are so recurrent in France that it is easy to be blasé about the latest outbreak. Once or twice a decade, unhappiness with the regime boils up and the country seems on the brink of eruption. Presidents Mitterrand, Chirac and Sarkozy all faced potential social convulsions arising from their inability to solve la crise. The expression applies not to a passing phase, but to the sense of economic doom that has haunted France since the 1973 oil-price shock. The upheavals never came and all three presidents defied predictions of collapse and saw out their terms. Now, only 18 months since he was elected, it is the turn of the hapless François Hollande and this time the ingredients of discontent seem so abundant that many are discerning the perfect storm.

    Farmers, businessmen and workers in Brittany have taken to wearing symbolic red bonnets and joined in the revolt against Hollande’s blizzard of new or raised taxes. With France in a foul mood, protests are erupting in many quarters, with bonnets of many colours. Ambulance owners and riding schools have protested, both saying they will go out of business following a big jump in their rates of VAT. Farmers have planned a blockade of Paris for 21 November.

    I’ve just heard a lurid analysis from one of the beneficiaries of the discontent – Marine Le Pen. The leader of the once-reviled Front National was on good form when I met her at the party HQ in Nanterre. Marine may have “de-demonised” the old xenophobic party founded by her father, Jean-Marie, but she retains his fondness for apocalyptic rhetoric. “France is going to be put to the fire and sword. I think we are in a period of revolt,” she told me.

    The popular leading woman of French politics blames the entire political establishment for bringing France to its knees, while the establishment in turn holds her responsible for a rise of racism in public discourse. But just about everyone outside the Parti Socialiste would agree with her diagnosis: “The French have the feeling that François Hollande doesn’t have a clue where he is going. That’s what is stirring the anxiety.”

    So much blame is heaped on Hollande that it is hard not to feel sorry for the amiable back-room party manager who, his friends say, still cannot believe his good fortune in landing the presidency last year. He is held responsible for just about everything that reflects the rancid mood in the country. If France’s once-glorious football team seems destined to crash out of the World Cup, c’est la faute à Hollande. If a lone gunman stalks Parisians, it is a symptom of his morbid reign.

    France always falls out of love with its elected monarchs, but le désamour with Hollande, now the most unpopular president since polling began in 1958, has been spectacularly swift. It springs from his bumbling leadership, addiction to taxes and failure to halt unemployment and economic decline.

    More broadly, Hollande and Jean-Marc Ayrault, his emollient prime minister, are paying the price for France’s unhappiness with the modern world. While big French firms have prospered in the globalised economy, successive presidents, including the supposedly reformist Nicolas Sarkozy, have shielded their people from the new mentality of competition. The enemy remains le libéralisme anglo-saxon, the alien creed deemed to be deployed against France by everyone from the Chinese to the European Commission.

    Hollande has belatedly explained that France’s decline stems from a decade-long slide in competitiveness, but there is only so far he can go without touching left-wing taboos and betraying his promises to shore up the Gallic social model. In private, senior ministers accept that public spending has to be slashed from 56 per cent of GDP and that labour laws must be loosened, but they fear the revolt such actions could trigger.

    Hollande is trying to weather the ridicule being showered on his presidency. He is making the most of the muscle that France has wielded in the Middle East, over Iran in particular, and in his successful military venture against Islamists in the Sahel. Yet some figures in his own entourage worry that he has failed to grasp the mood of catastrophisme and that muddling through to better times may not work.

    In Hollande’s favour, one should remember that, unlike David Cameron or Angela Merkel, he is not a mere government leader, who can be disowned by parliament or rattled into calling elections. He holds the near-absolute powers of a president of the Fifth Republic, with a subservient parliament that only he could dissolve. And Hollande has lately been reminding nervous visitors of a favourite saying of his late mentor François Mitterrand: “Il faut laisser du temps au temps”– you have to give time time to do its work.

    Charles Bremner is the Europe editor of the Times

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    "I didn’t want to tell a political story where all the politicians were shits, just devious bastards who were self-sufficient and only wanted power for the sake of power. I couldn’t write even ten episodes of that, because it would just be ... evil."

    Early in the commissioning process for his political drama Borgen, its creator, Adam Price, was told that this was one Scandinavian TV show that wasn’t going to “travel”. Although it is often lumped in with the crime thrillers The Killing and The Bridge as another example of the “Nordic noir” phenomenon that has dominated our small screens in the past few years, Borgen is actually something else – a story about politicians that isn’t worthy, trite or cynical. Even so, Price was reconciled to the idea that it was never going to be a global hit. “I mean, who would want to see a Danish show about coalition politics?”

    Quite a lot of people, it turns out. Borgen has been sold to 75 countries around the world, and counts substantial numbers of real-life politicians among its fans. Appropriately enough, I meet Price for coffee right opposite the Palace of Westminster, well aware that many of its occupants will be tuning in religiously now that the third series has begun on BBC4.

    What is it about this foreign-language drama about coalition politics that has us so in thrall? A lot of it has to do with the writing, it must be said. Borgen is fast-paced but not breathless, multilayered without being confusing. The dialogue is polished and witty. But Price also suggests that its popularity has something to do with its attitude towards the subject matter. At a time when we don’t like or trust our politicians much, Borgen presents a seductive alternative to outright cynicism.

     “I didn’t want to tell a political story where all the politicians were shits, just devious bastards who were self-sufficient and only wanted power for the sake of power,” he says. “I couldn’t write even ten episodes of that, because it would just be ... evil.

     “[The show] is populated by some shits but also some people that want to do good. Sometimes they do good in a bad way but at least their intentions were good. I think, even at its darkest, in Borgen there is always a flicker of hope.”

    Indeed, at the start of this third and final series, the former prime minister Birgitte Nyborg has ostensibly abandoned politics for the glamour of the global stage, only to be sucked back in by what Price calls her “sparkle of idealism”.

    There is hope, too, especially for a British audience, in Borgen’s central character being a woman. Our own political establishment is so starkly unequal (just 22.5 per cent of UK MPs are women, compared to 39 per cent in Denmark, which also has a female prime minister) that we revel in a fictional vision of how much better things could be.

    The first series of Borgen was written by a team of three men but many of its most prominent characters – politicians, journalists, news directors – are women. They may suffer in the political intrigues, yet seeing these women working at the top of politics is thrilling in itself.

    Price claims that the show remains unchanged by its surprise international success, and that he has tried not to listen “to all that beautiful noise of people getting interested in the thing that you are writing”.

    The show has done its bit to bring about changes in politics, though. One storyline – about pig farming – from the third series led to accusations that Price was against government protection for the pork industry, and a motion in the real-life Danish parliament. It caused an uproar in Denmark. “My God, are you now getting inspiration from a fictional show?” he says, mimicking one of the critics of the motion in parliament.

    Given the kind of pragmatic idealism it goes in for, though, I can’t help but wonder if a bit more Borgen in our politics would be such a bad thing.

    The third and final series of “Borgen” is currently broadcast on BBC4 on Saturdays at 9pm. The box set will be released on 16 December.

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    Rising house prices are meant to pacify the UK, but they are not in the least bit comforting.

    I take a detour down Frankie’s road on the way to Sainsbury’s and that’s when I see it: a clipped little tree in a slate-coloured pot. It is sitting innocently enough in the front garden of an ordinary house in an ordinary street. But immediately I get a sinking feeling in my stomach.

    I’ve seen trees like this before. Years ago they spread through Islington, my childhood home, like a virulent rash. The moment they started appearing near my old flat in Stoke Newington, I knew it was all over. Shortly afterwards we moved out to the suburbs, where we live now.

    Just when I thought I could relax ... now they’re here, like harbingers of doom. Because these trees – so tame, so tasteful, so not actually trees – mean property developers. They are what you do in a front garden when you don’t intend to stick around long enough to actually plant anything and watch it grow. A cursory glance at the rest of the house confirms my suspicions. The front door and the window frames are painted Farrow & Ball-esque grey. The brickwork has been cleaned up, the plantation shutters are closed. A “For Sale” sign is up outside.

    “What’s going on over there?” I ask Frankie when she opens the door.

    “Oh, yeah. Guess how much it’s on the market for?”

    “No. I can’t bear it. Just tell me.”


    “Piss off.” Only last year, houses on this road were selling for less than 500k. Frankie bought hers four years ago for 350. I heard a rumour that the average house price in our area has gone up by 40 per cent this year. As we own our slightly-too-small flat, I can’t deny that part of me feels greatly chuffed. It’s always nice when your net worth increases to the tune of tens of thousands of pounds without you having to lift a finger.

    But during the epic journey home, as Larry stops to examine every leaf and hole in the road, I have plenty of time to mull it over. What good does this “money” actually do us? It’s not going to help us move; in fact, it will make it more difficult as the differential between flats and houses only grows as prices rise. The only way it would actually improve our quality of life would be if we moved out of the area to somewhere cheaper — north, for example. I know plenty of people who are considering it.

    But I have already moved once and I am determined not to do it again. London is our home. My mum is here and so is my sister. We have friends, Larry has friends. Even baby Moe has friends, if you consider a shared love of hitting one another over the head as nascent friendship. I don’t want to start again in a new place, unless that place is a lovely terraced house on Highbury Fields.

    I glance into the buggy and notice Moe has opened his eyes. I pop his dummy back in and he drifts peacefully off again. It is, I realise with grim satisfaction, the perfect analogy: house prices are nothing but a great big dummy, administered by our great leaders to keep us all quiet. And we are just sucking it up.

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    The nights are long, the sun sets at 4pm and Radio 3 is in a death spiral — why even stay in London?

    I do hope you all read Antonia Quirke’s piece about Radio 3 in last week’s New Statesman. It’s important: taking the local instance of the gradual whittling down of the excellent programme Discovering Music from one and a half hours to 20 minutes, she extrapolates to find a deeper malaise – the whittling down of Radio 3 itself.

    This is something I take almost personally, for when I moved into the Hovel, one of the things that kept me alive was having Radio 3 on almost all day and sometimes through the night. When was the last time I listened to the station for any length of time, though?

    It’s not as if I’m losing interest in culture. And the Beloved works in the business of what we shall loosely call classical music and one of the many reasons she is wonderful is that she was the first woman I had gone out with who could listen to Berg or Bartók with me without asking me to switch that bloody racket off.

    To think it took me half a century to get to that stage. I’d have given up if someone had told me it would take that long. When I bought her the score for Britten’s Peter Grimes last Christmas, she freaked out a bit because she’d been wanting it for years and had never been given it. She assumed I had been speaking to her family. No: just an inspired hunch and good luck.

    So we’re ready for Radio 3 here, all right. And yet this station that used to be a lifeline has become an irritant. I switch on the little Sony, tune the dial, hear a few bars of insipid rubbish, or the kind of jazz you’d hear in a bar where the only selling point is the view out of the window, and switch off. What the bloody hell is going on over there?

    When I was a radio critic, the controller, Roger Wright, would take me to lunch and tell me what was going to be happening that season. I’d eat all the oysters I could cram into my gob and then repay him by complaining about the amount of jazz that his station played – but compared to the way it is today, back then the station was a treat. Now it’s Classic FM without the adverts and still, thankfully, without the unctuous announcers but that’s not good enough.

    I wonder whether it’s being run into the ground deliberately or by accident. Perhaps Wright has let his attention wander by looking after the Proms each year; as a cricketer, he should know the dangers of taking your eye off the ball.

    Then again, he’s not stupid and if the station sounds like shit now (and you can hear the strain sometimes in the presenters’ voices if you listen hard enough), it’s probably because he wants it to sound that way.

    As he wasn’t, the last time I checked, an actively sadistic man, or interested in making the nation slightly less cultivated than it was before he took over, then I can only assume that it’s pressure from above, although it’s an odd kind of pressure that starves the station of funds and gives every indication that it doesn’t care whether it lives or dies.

    That kind of attitude is known elsewhere as “constructive dismissal”. Those in charge seem happy with the way that listening figures are going down and if it hasn’t occurred to them by now that the reason they’re going down is because the channel’s pumping out wallpaper paste, then it probably won’t ever occur to them.

    I know I can listen to all the Webern and Shostakovich that I want all day long on YouTube but the nice thing about hearing something on the radio is that you know there are people out there who are prepared to share their tastes with you and let you know that you are not alone. It is the general principle behind the whole medium.

    Radio 3’s slide into mediocrity or worse is like watching an old friend becoming a rather conventional bore: you see them losing their sense of humour and curiosity and think, after a while, there’s no point in seeing them again.

    The nights are getting longer; the sun sets at about four o’clock in the afternoon; all the draughts in the Hovel spring into action; I am aware almost every minute of the day that the Beloved is moving to another country in January (I am hoping it is invaded by Daleks before then but I have to admit that this is something of a long shot); I think, apart from my children, what’s keeping me here?

    I’ve got an American passport and Razors says he has a spare room for me, should I ever need it. True, the radio is rubbish even in New York but it’s getting that way here, so why not?

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