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    We got a new toilet.

    We have a new toilet in the Hovel. Or is it a lavatory? Being déclassé, I have never been able to remember which is the word you must never use in front of polite society. Anyway, that thing you piss in. I consider squeamishness one of the more useless reactions to a world that is unavoidably full of “oomska” (to use Uncle Monty’s term) but even I was beginning to get fed up with the old one. In a colour that, in a paint catalogue of unusual honesty, would be described as “diseased peach” and dating from the early 1970s, its innards had become so rusted and manky that even the rudimentary flush mechanism had ceased to function.

    Its decline, like that of an invalid, could be marked in stages. The float either floated too much or too little so it never thought its cistern was full and the days and nights were accompanied by the endless hiss of water coming in and the endless trickle of water going out of the overflow pipe. I know the plumber’s old trick of bending the float’s arm to put an end to precisely this kind of nonsense but (a) I could never remember whether to bend it up or down and (b) it was so oxidised anyway, it looked as though any attempt to bend it one way or another would snap it in two.

    Then the pin connecting one bit to another failed, or rusted away, or something, and even though I and Piotr the plumber (yes, a Polish plumber, golly, how original this comedy is; but the truth is that he is Polish and he is called Piotr and he’s very nice, too) would alternately try to jerry-rig something Heath Robinson-esque to make it work – the idea being that it seemed crazy to spend hundreds of pounds on a new khazi when all that was wrong with it were some bits of metal worth about 3p – it got to the stage where the only way to flush the thing was to take off the lid of the cistern and pull up the lift rod (correct term) yourself. 

    This involved immersing your hand and forearm in the water, with the result that when people came to visit after a long journey and said, “Can I use your loo?” the only proper response, until they’d had a few drinks to nerve themselves, was: “No.”

    Once I’d explained, they saw my point. But it is still surprising how many otherwise intelligent people confuse or equate the water that sits in the cistern with the water that sits in the pan below. Our own Laurie Penny, who is otherwise one of the smartest people I know, was particularly obdurate on this point the last time she came to visit and her cries of protest when I explained the modus operandi to her were long and loud. 

    So now we have a new bog. 

    (Is that the right word?) It’s smaller, neater and whiter than the old one and you now push a button to flush it; in fact, you have a choice of buttons and you don’t have to be a genius to predict that when it fails, which it most certainly will, you won’t be able to fix it, however temporarily, with a bit of coat hanger. 

    The wall behind it bears signs of the trauma of the sick toilet’s removal – it had, over the decades, basically welded itself to the brickwork – and the cheap, small-scale reproduction of The Fighting Temeraire that I had wittily hung up behind it is now off-centre and doesn’t go so well – but at least everyone can relieve themselves without getting their arms wet.

    And so the bathroom is beginning to resemble Theseus’s ship, or grandfather’s axe, that old philosophical noggin-scratcher whereby the replacement of individual components raises the question of the historical integrity of the whole: the sink was replaced a few months earlier and now has a plug that doesn’t work instead of taps that don’t work, which is much better. Meanwhile, the bath, the size of a hippo and completely unusable for about five different reasons, sulks beneath its burden of its clothes horses and reminds me and every visitor that this is not like other bathrooms. 

    Everyone else, with one or two exceptions, now has a better shithouse (any better?) than I do. These days, the smallest room (Jesus, what a twee coinage) is meant to be pristine, a place you could eat your dinner off or perform surgery in. Mine is a relic of an older time, only authentic, unlike the pathetic recreations of medieval huts at historical fairs. And it does not, like today’s sleek, pampered thing, pretend to be anything other than what it is. Whether it’s legal is another matter altogether. 

    It’s a jakes. That’s the word.

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    PL Travers doesn't fit the stereotype of a children's author. In fact, she didn't even like children.

    PL Travers, aged 60, is on a flight to Hollywood and her suitcase is too large for the luggage rack. They want to take it away but she insists she must keep her bag with her. A young woman with a baby in her arms generously allows her case to be taken down instead. Travers, far from grateful, eyes the baby coldly and says: “Will the child be a nuisance?” 

    In the new film Saving Mr Banks, Emma Thompson is practically perfect at delivering the withering putdowns of Travers, reminding us that not all children’s authors are renowned for their love of children. Indeed, Travers claimed emphatically that she did not write for children at all. But the film is a fictionalised episode in a long, complex life.

    Few knew that behind the quintessentially English nanny named Mary Poppins was an Australian. Five Mary Poppins books – including a translation of one into Latin, Maria Poppina ab A ad Z– had appeared by 1967 when Travers was featured in a “Meet the Author” feature in the first issue of Puffin Post magazine. “She lives at World’s End – what a suitable address for the author of Mary Poppins!” wrote Puffin’s editor, Kaye Webb. Travers told the magazine she had been “born in the southern wild” – a favourite line of hers, from Blake’s poem “The Little Black Boy” – to a mother who had the eye of a snake. She also said a hunchbacked old Irishman once told her, “The only education you need is spitting.”

    The southern wild was rural Queensland in 1899, and her childhood name was Helen Lyndon Goff, eldest of three daughters of a bank manager named Travers Goff (the first of many models for Mr Banks, the banker father in Mary Poppins), ignominiously demoted to clerk. By claiming to be steeped in the Celtic twilight – actually he was born in Deptford, south-east London – Goff passed on to his daughter his sentimental notions of Irishness, singing and keening over Yeats. He died of drink in his early 40s, whereupon a distinctly Mary Poppins-like great-aunt called Ellie – tall, gaunt and formidable, with maxims, mannerisms and a holdall – blew in from Woollahra to take charge of the family and pay Helen’s school fees.

    Having changed her name to Pamela Travers, she took to the stage aged 20, playing Titania at Sydney’s old opera house in 1922. Then she switched to journalism and her output was prolific. She filled several columns with such titles as “Pamela Passes”, “The Moon and Sausages”, and “A Woman Hits Back”: “Men are never interested in women. They are only interested in showing women how interesting they are.” She reviewed theatre and produced the kind of swoony, yearning verses favoured by virgin poetesses in the 1920s (“Crush me close – close against your heart”) with coy references to “the fortress of my womanhood”.

    Despite all this activity, she felt she must escape Australia and head for Ireland. “Don’t be an idiot! Ireland! Nothing but rain and rebels and a gabble of Gaelic!” cried Aunt Ellie. But to Dublin Travers went, and plunged into the literary milieu with chutzpah, contriving to captivate the poet George “Æ” Russell, who published her (“Only an Irish person could have written this poem,” he said), and even Yeats himself. In an extravagantly fey gesture, she gathered armfuls of rowan branches in the rain, from the island she thought was Innisfree, and delivered them to Yeats in Merrion Square. In return, Yeats showed her the egg his canary had just laid.

    Intoxicated by Irish myths and folklore, Travers joined in the Dublin literati’s embrace of eastern philosophy, theosophy, Madame Blavatsky and other gurus. After her Irish spell she settled in London, where she was able to live by journalism, presenting her life as a whirlwind of excitements, approving Wilde’s dictum that “the first duty in life is to assume a pose”. She kept a dog and drove a battered sports car. She set up home in a Goldilocks cottage in Sussex with Madge Burnand, daughter of the editor of Punch– a prickly relationship that lasted ten years. (Travers never married, and fell romantically for both men and women.)

    A trip to Moscow was the subject of her first book, which she dedicated “to HLG”, her previous self. Later Æ encouraged Travers to venture to New Mexico, where she took to tiered flouncy skirts and armfuls of silver bangles. She also fell unrequitedly for another Irishman, the boozing dandy Francis Macnamara, father of Caitlin Thomas. And like many in her circle,  she became an acolyte of the spiritual teacher George Gurdjieff. It now seems incredible that intelligent people were emotionally needy enough to fall for the hocus pocus Gurdjieff peddled, and to be fleeced by his conmanship. Travers sat adoringly at his embalmed feet even after he died.

    Travers claimed that she wrote her most famous creation for herself – as Beatrix Potter also claimed about Peter Rabbit. As early as 1926 she had published a short story, “Mary Poppins and the Match Man” (Poppins’s best friend, Bert, played by Dick Van Dyke in the film). In the first book, in 1934, she chose an androgynous byline, not to be identified as “one more silly woman writing silly books”, and gave Mary Poppins some of her own characteristics, making her tart, brusque and vain. Where did she come from? Travers, like Poppins, “never explained”. Mary Poppins was like Peter Pan, descending upon a middle-class London household, or Alice, tumbling down the rabbit-hole into Wonderland.  She confronted children with difficult truths, using fairy tales and myths.

    In 1940, six years after the first Poppins book was published, the 40-year-old Travers felt such longing for a child that she arranged to go to Ireland and adopt one of the newborn twin grandsons of Joseph Hone, a friend of Yeats. She asked an astrologer in California to prepare the babies’ horoscopes and used his charts to choose Camillus, sailing almost at once with him to the US as an evacuee. Aged three, Camillus the solitary twin told her: “I am two boys, Goodly and Badly.” He travelled widely with her but was miserable at boarding school and became a difficult boy. 

    Only aged 17 and bound for Oxford did he discover he was adopted, when his twin brother, Anthony, who had been raised as a Catholic by impoverished grandparents in Ireland turned up unannounced in London. Camillus was furious with his mother and their relationship was damaged. Eventually, like her father, both boys succumbed to alcoholism. In Victoria Coren Mitchell’s recent BBC2 documentary, Camillus’s daughter Kitty Travers said her father had used his concealed adoption forever “as an excuse for bad behaviour”.

    Travers remained carefully unfamiliar to the public, being secretive and evasive: “I’m a private sort of person, as anonymous as possible – and that’s not humility.” Despite the stratospheric success of Disney’s film in 1964, she was no longer a household name in 1999, when Valerie Lawson’s excellent biography Out of the Sky She Came was published – used as source material for Saving Mr Banks, it has now been reissued as Mary Poppins, She Wrote.

    Travers had always been peremptory and dogmatic about her creation, even in book form. She appointed E H Shepard’s daughter, Mary, as illustrator. She even wanted to choose her own typeface and resisted being paperbacked. It took years for Walt Disney to woo her. She did sign his contract before going to Hollywood (not afterwards, as the new film suggests). Yet she still expected deference and arrived prepared to do battle. The exchanges between Travers and Disney in Saving Mr Banks ring true. “There’s a child in all of us, Mrs Travers.” “Maybe in you, Mr Disney, but not in me.” In a snatch of archive tape, played as the film’s credits roll, Travers can be heard wrangling with the screenwriters, demanding gravitas, eliminating Americanisms (“No, no – that is quite un-English”). She sounds uncannily Thompson-like.

    It is rather remarkable that Disney should make this film, which shows an English writer fighting to preserve her work from being travestied and trivialised by the very same studio. (A A Milne did just the same – it was not until 10 years after his death that Pooh developed an American accent in Disney’s Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree.) But Disney was right to excise from Mary Poppins the Zen mysticism and symbolism, about which academics had preposterously written lectures and learned papers. And although Disney’s songwriters the Sherman Brothers are on record as finding Travers “a hellcat” to work with (“like having two weeks of ulcers”), she comes across in the film as ultimately sympathetic, commanding respect for facing up with spirit to the Disney men. Travers was fond of saying that all women pass through three phases: nymph, mother, crone. She had just reached the crone stage – an extremely chic, slender crone with a bubble haircut.

    Dodie Smith had a similar maxim: that all women decide to age into either a cushion or a needle. Smith was as needle-sharp as Travers and she too was beady-eyed about Walt Disney buying the rights to her first children’s book, The Hundred and One Dalmatians, shortly before Travers succumbed. But Disney showed up in person at Smith’s thatched cottage in Suffolk and she was charmed. She had expected, she wrote, “a small, mean-looking Hollywood Jew; but he was tall, broad, mid-western and good-looking”.

    As Lawson writes, in the initial days of Disney’s charm offensive, P L Travers “fell into Walt’s embrace like a lovesick fool, but the fortune he gave her almost made up for the betrayal”. She got $100,000 upfront and 5 per cent of the gross, so she had to forgive  “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” and dancing penguins. And after five years of “uneasy wedlock”, the film emerged – unsubtle, sugary, sentimental; “gorgeous, but all wrapped round mediocrity of thought” – and won five Oscars. Sam Goldwyn wrote an open letter saying everyone in the world should see it. Never mind that Disney’s editions of Mary Poppins books outsold hers; her own sales trebled. She would later say that she had written “a small unpretentious book, but as full of meat as a sausage is. The film made it grandiose, pretentious and took all the stuffing out of the story.” But she always praised Julie Andrews and even thought Dick Van Dyke’s cockney was “really not too bad”. She discussed a possible sequel without objection.

    In the 1960s Travers gravitated, as Isherwood and Huxley had earlier, to Jiddu Krishnamurti. She became writer-in-residence at Radcliffe, Smith and other American women’s campuses where she could be as opinionated and touchy as she liked. (Ted Hughes told her publishers that for Sylvia Plath, a Smith graduate, “Mary Poppins was the fairy godmother of her childhood.”) She was given an honorary doctorate, and in her seventies an OBE, plus the accolade of a Desert Island Discs. Her eight records were all poems, including Yeats reading “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” and Alec Guinness reading from “Little Gidding”. In her Chelsea house she remained compos mentis almost till the end. “Actresses grow old, dancers grow wobbly, whereas a writer still has a typewriter,” she said, completing two more books, the last being What the Bee Knows

    She died in 1996, too soon to see Cameron Mackintosh’s stage musical in 2004, which struck an ideal note of magic and pathos; or the fleet of Mary Poppinses at the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony. The irony is that just as Disney’s film whitewashed Mary Poppins (who in Travers’s original stories could be vindictive and almost sadistically cruel), Saving Mr Banks has done the same to Travers. As convincing as Emma Thompson is, the film shows just one dimension of Poppins’s creator – a neatly pressed version, without the hippyish bangles, weird superstitions or secretly adopted son. Travers, in turn, has been supercalifragilistically Disneyfied.

    Valerie Grove’s books include “Dear Dodie: the Life of Dodie Smith” (Pimlico, £10.99)

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    I’ve often thought that sex is just a series of humiliations punctuated by orgasms, and this film is a confirmation of that.

    In the Odeon lobby, The Lesbians are gathering. Middle-aged bespectacled butches shoulder to shoulder with young, undercut-sporting Dalston debutantes are awaiting their first peek at the biggest event in Sapphic cinema since The Kids Are All Right

    “Three for Blue is the Warmest Colour, please,” I mumble, avoiding eye contact with the girl behind the counter. Two friends look on, probably wondering what the hell my problem is. But having just been warned about the film’s seven-minute sex scene, I can’t help feeling like I’ve just slid a slightly sticky twenty across the counter for a screening of Horny Lezzers Go Mental rather than a Palme d’Or winner. Yes: the girl who writes about wanking all the bloody time is embarrassed. As with every other lesbian-themed film ever, no one has shut up about this one’s sexual content since its debut. This isn’t helped by the fact that critiquing girl-on-girl sex scenes is a lesbian pastime right up there with hockey and vegan baking. And that enjoying “lesbian” porn is a straight male pastime right up there with having a penis and having testicles.

    I’ve often thought that sex is just a series of humiliations punctuated by orgasms. Blue is the Warmest Colour confirmed this for me. The heavy breathing to the point of hyperventilation, the groaning, the grabbing fistfuls of one another’s flesh; it’s all a bit silly, really.

    I have no doubt that the sex in the film was directed with that old favourite, “the male gaze”, in mind. Lesbians don’t actually scissor, for starters (it’s something that some pitifully unimaginative men decided we do). But let me throw in some context. Adèle is a teenager on the cusp of discovering her sexuality; Emma is a lesbian art student with blue hair. They meet. They discuss Sartre. They eat. They shag. They smoke. They fall in love. They discuss Egon Schiele. They eat. They shag. They smoke. It’s all incredibly French. 

    But the gratuitous sex, which includes a slightly retrograde close-up of a shaved pubis, doesn’t detract from what is essentially a rather sweet, sad love story. The characters are complex and realistic; the dialogue is sharp. Adèle’s struggle to come to terms with her sexuality reminds me of my own, so I’m her buddy right from the start. In fact, when she has tedious and unfulfilling sex with a boy at the beginning of the film, I have to stop myself from standing up and shouting out, “Yes! That!”

    While watching I ask myself repeatedly, “Is this an important film?” Well yes, it is. Unfortunately, a simple lesbian romance is inherently political. Woman falls in love with woman; drama ensues. Sadly, such a plot is still taboo-busting, groundbreaking stuff.

    I was afraid I’d like this film. Everything I’d heard from other gay women suggested it was voyeuristic, exploitative and riddled with clichés. I wanted to loathe it. Annoyingly, it moved me. When the two protagonists weren’t at each other like a couple of sex-starved bonobos, their story was told with great sensitivity. But hey, maybe a three hour feelings-orgy is just my thing. And for anyone who can’t stomach a couple of hours of lesbian drama, you should try an entire life of the damn stuff.

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    The Chancellor suggests a future Tory government would make large welfare cuts, including a lower benefit cap.

    George Osborne has long made it clear that he would like to make greater welfare cuts than the Liberal Democrats will allow, but rarely has he been as explicit as he was at today's Treasury select committee hearing. After Labour's Pat McFadden noted the OBR's finding that day-to-day departmental spending was forecast to fall to its lowest level since records began in 1948, Osborne replied that this figure did not take into account the "further welfare savings" he would make. While refusing to "put a number on it" (such as the IFS forecast that £12bn of welfare cuts or tax rises will be required to keep cuts at their current pace), he said that he wanted "billions" more cut from the welfare budget. 

    What cuts could he have in mind? It's worth looking back at the speech David Cameron made on the subject in June 2012 when he outlined a series of possible measures, including: 

    • The restriction of child-related benefits for families with more than two children.
    • A lower rate of benefits for the under-21s.
    • Preventing school leavers from claiming benefits.
    • Paying benefits in kind (like free school meals), rather than in cash.
    • Reducing benefit levels for the long-term unemployed. Cameron said: "Instead of US-style time-limits – which remove entitlements altogether – we could perhaps revise the levels of benefits people receive if they are out of work for literally years on end".
    • A lower housing benefit cap. Cameron said that the current limit of £20,000 was still too high.
    • The abolition of the "non-dependent deduction". Those who have an adult child living with them would lose up to £74 a week in housing benefit.

    Osborne would also likely reduce the household benefit cap of £26,000 (he said today that "future governments could change the level" and Tory MPs have been pushing for one of £20,000) and maintain the 1% cap on benefit increases (a real-terms cut). 

    At present, the Tories have been prevented from making the cuts above by the Lib Dems, who have refused to consider further reductions until Osborne ends the ring-fencing of pensioner benefits. But should Cameron avoid repeating his 2010 pledge to protect the latter, the door would be opened to further welfare cuts under another Tory-Lib Dem coalition. 

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  • 12/12/13--04:12: Ex-Industrial (a trailer)
  • Zoom in: near sunset in a town where everything’s ex-this,
    ex-that, an artificial pond poured in to fill the gaps.
    Just out of shot, your neighbour the ex-smoker smokes
    behind the flats and feels ex-touches shivering down his back.
    Interior: your ex-face in that photo on the shelf
    is less than half the shadow of your former self.
    Crowned with a plastic rose, the TV’s talking to itself.
    A coat pools on the floor. Real shadows take the walls by stealth.
    Zoom out: that man-made lake again. The fishermen
    and geese have left, the sun slinks off towards the west.
    The camera pans across the water, comes to rest –
    and there: the sun beneath the surface holds its breath.
    Helen Mort was born in Sheffield in 1985. Her debut collection, Division Street, was published by Chatto & Windus in September and has been shortlisted for the Costa Poetry Award and the T S Eliot Prize. Mort’s poetry is informed by the post-industrial landscape of north Derbyshire, where she grew up (she is the current poet laureate for Derbyshire). Asked what inspires her work, she said: “I think a lot of poetry comes from a kind of greed – a longing for the lives you haven’t led, the places you haven’t lived.” “Ex-Industrial (a trailer)” is previously unpublished.

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    Tyson's early life was characterised by incarceration and petty crime, but he lucked when he fell under the tutelage of boxing trainer Cus D’Amato.

    Undisputed Truth: My Autobiography
    Mike Tyson with Larry Sloman
    HarperSport, 564pp, £20

    Few fighters have generated as much cash, controversy and carnage as Mike Tyson. To quote Norman Mailer, he “boiled in cauldrons of bad publicity”. His autobiography, Undisputed Truth, is the American dream writ large in raw detail: think Citizen Kane scripted by the writing team of The Wire.

    Bullied as a kid for being fat, having a lisp and dressing scruffily, Tyson and his elder brother and sister were brought up in various “cesspools” in Brooklyn by his mother. He never knew his father. He was a “momma’s boy” who slept in the same bed as her until he was 15. Eventually, they went “from being poor to being serious poor to being fucked up poor”.

    Ditching school at the age of seven, he started fleecing people in public – ripping necklaces off strangers on the subway, palming wallets and purses, like the Artful Dodger – all the time running with desperate-for-dollars kids who would grow up to shoot others or be shot dead. Often, he gave most of the stolen money to his mother, to help her scrape by. Sometimes he bought himself weed or clothes or trainers: “I couldn’t even spell fucking Adidas but I knew how they made me feel.” The act of buying has remained important to Tyson throughout his life. He personifies the impatience of capitalism: clothes, trainers, cars, houses, tigers, prostitutes, drink, cocaine – he has to have them.

    By the time Tyson was ten, after his family moved to Brownsville, an even tougher part of Brooklyn, his mother had no job and no prospect of having one ever again. Soon, the pressures of survival revealed her to be a depressive alcoholic prone to displays of aggression aimed at her boyfriends. The parallels with her son’s struggles are bleakly obvious.

    Tyson was incarcerated in various juvenile detention centres but lucked out when he fell under the wise tutelage of the boxing trainer Cus D’Amato, who had previously guided Floyd Patterson and José Torres to world championships. Eminently quotable, anti-Republican, anti-money, as hard as nails and bankrupt, Cus is a book in himself.

    Within six minutes of studying the 13-year-old Tyson sparring, he saw the future heavyweight champion. Cus just needed to convince the boy. Over the course of the next eight years, until he died shortly before Tyson achieved their shared dream at the unprecedented age of 20, he supplied him with an identity and vocabulary, having hewed the rough edges into an offensive force that would enthral even non-boxing fans. 

    Cus meant everything to him – father, friend and sometimes foe. After the death of Tyson’s mum, Cus and his partner, Camille, took him in. Tyson never forgot how they cared for him as one of their own. Cus’s sad exit from Tyson’s fast-growing empire was a heavy blow. The great “if only” of his life is that if Cus could have been there a little longer, the chaos may not have consumed him so spectacularly.

    Expertly ghostwritten by Larry “Ratso” Sloman, whose previous work includes Scar Tissue, the visceral and slick autobiography of the hard-living Red Hot Chili Peppers singer, Anthony Kiedis, the book has a great American novel feel to it – and not just because it clocks in at a generous 564 pages. Tyson could easily be a Tom Wolfe or Norman Mailer creation.

    The supporting cast are pure Wolfe: the mercurial Cus; Robin Givens, the beautiful, fame-hungry first wife and her inseparable mum, Ruth (or “Ruthless”, as Tyson renames her); the gangsters and street kids he’d always take money to or snort heaps of cocaine and drink with back in Brownsville; Don King and his grubby mitts, fiendishly screwing Tyson at every turn – Darth Vader to Cus’s Obi-Wan Kenobi – and then Desiree Washington, the beauty queen who accused him of raping her in 1991.

    Aided by Sloman’s clever arrangements of facts and testaments, Tyson makes a compelling case that he was innocent of rape and that he should never have served three years in jail. His defence team was oddly inept. Washington, who had also (unsuccessfully) accused another man of raping her in the past, seemed to be playing a role. This is very much Tyson’s side of the story but his argument is convincingly detailed.

    Innocent or guilty, by then Tyson’s aura of invincibility had been damaged and it was his own fault. The knockout by Buster Douglas – a 40-1 outsider in some gambling circles – in Tokyo in 1990 remains one of the biggest upsets in sporting history. Since winning the title in 1986, his training schedules had fallen apart. Tyson beat himself that night and went on to beat himself thereafter – and not just in the ring.

    Undisputed Truth is far from a patronising celebrity memoir. In typical Tyson style, the original manuscript had to be pulled and the slightly redemptive ending rewritten: he wasn’t as clean as he’d said. Eventually, a “postscript to the epilogue” was added, explaining that he was a “vicious addict” but he hadn’t had a drink or taken cocaine for six days and that this was a “miracle”. Perhaps, in time, all memoirs will be as painfully honest.

    Austin Collings is the co-author of “Renegade: the Lives and Tales of Mark E Smith” (Penguin, £10.99)

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    A former president of the Association of Surgeons of Great Britain and Ireland argues that the word “cancer” is unhelpful in efforts to lead patients away from quacks.

    It is more than 12 years since the writer and broadcaster John Diamond wrote his cancer diary, recording all that happened to him from diagnosis to near-end. Starting as a sceptic, with a distrust of conventional medicine and its practitioners, he went on to explore the various complementary and alternative systems and concluded with his book Snake Oil and Other Preoccupations, a skilful and often very funny exposé of those who exploit vulnerable people by offering false hope.

    There have been a number of accounts in the press, notably by Philip Gould, Christopher Hitchens, Iain Banks and others, who have undergone physical and mental ordeals in receiving treatment for a terminal illness. Perhaps the most poignant message came from the poet and translator James Michie, who wrote, just before he died, I used to fancy crabmeat as a treat: Now Crab’s the epicure, and I’m the meat.

    These courageous and articulate people deserve our sympathy and respect but their experiences are not typical. While suffering and death are newsworthy, the stories of the thousands who are quietly cured never reach the headlines.

    At this point, I should declare my credentials. During a lifetime’s work as a surgeon in the NHS, I treated many people with cancer in various parts of the body. About 30 years ago, mid-career, I was found to have a malignant tumour; my chances of surviving for five years were less than one in 20. Following chemotherapy, radiotherapy and eventually major surgery, I made a good recovery and am lucky to be able to write these words today. The experience taught me a lot and profoundly influenced my attitude to those of my patients with similar problems.

    Then, many years later, I noticed a small lump beside my nose which I recognised as a basal cell carcinoma: a tumour that, left untreated, would have spread and destroyed my whole face. A colleague removed it under local anaesthetic and I have had no trouble since. In a letter to the Times in April 2011, I suggested that the practice of including these two conditions under the same emotive label of cancer (“the Crab”) was misleading and should be abandoned.

    We now know a great deal about the causation and behaviour of cancer, far more than when I started my career in medicine. From the moment of conception when the sperm meets the egg, the embryo undergoes trillions of cell divisions, controlled by the code of its inherited DNA, eventually resulting in the birth of a complete human being with unique characteristics. Growth continues into adult life but is necessarily regulated and balanced by a process known as “apoptosis”, which involves cell death. Normal cells have a limited lifespan and when they have outlived their usefulness they are knocked out. Cancer cells are different, in that they are not subject to apoptosis and, having escaped from super­vision – either through a gene mutation or as a result of damage to the DNA by an aggressive chemical such as is found in tobacco smoke – they continue to multiply.

    This process can be replicated in the laboratory. If you take a small sample of cells from your mouth and put them in a Petri dish with warm water and nutrients, they will continue to divide quite happily until one day you find that they have all died. In 1951, an African-American woman called Henrietta Lacks developed a growth on the cervix of her uterus. Cells cultured from her tumour did not die and, as far as I know, are dividing to this day in laboratories all over the world, providing us with a priceless means of studying the behaviour of cancerous tissues.

    As cancer cells multiply in a human body, they form an expanding tumour, which compresses and damages neighbouring structures. Eventually, some of them may break off into the circulation and form colonies (metastases) in other parts of the body. 

    The extent to which this happens defines the degree of malignancy of the tumour. 

    Relatively benign lesions such as the one on my nose remain in the same place, whereas the one that I’d developed many years previously had the capacity to kill me, had it not been for the excellent treatment that I received from the NHS.

    Today, not only do we understand how these diseases progress but we also have better means of combating them, whether by surgery, or radiotherapy, or drugs that block cell division. As a result, many tumours that were considered lethal in my day are now susceptible to treatment, if not curable. These include some forms of childhood leukaemia, Hodgkin’s lymphoma and the testicular cancer known as seminoma. We are making good progress with breast and bowel cancer and, to a lesser extent, with growths in the lungs and stomach.

    Cancer is not a diagnosis. It is a label – and a misleading one at that, given the wide range of conditions that it covers. People labelled as cancer victims constitute a target group for hard-nosed entrepreneurs. An internet search for alternative cancer treatments leads to a huge range of products that are advertised as “natural ways in which to attack and kill your cancer”.

    Note the use of the word “kill”, rather than “cure”. Most of these preparations do not claim to cure cancer because (in this country, at any rate) such a boast would be illegal. 

    The terms “gentle”, “natural” and “without harmful chemicals or side effects” occur frequently. These advertisements are principally aimed at the terminally ill and those who have been told by their doctor that there is nothing more to be done.

    These desperate people are the ones most likely to pay for alternative therapies and it is interesting to note that though there is plenty of advice on dosage (start with three bottles a day and increase as necessary, for example), there is no mention of price. The ugly little dollar sign appears only once an order has been placed.

    Dr Stanislaw Burzynski of Houston, Texas, attracts desperate people from all over the world to his multimillion-dollar cancer clinic. His methods employ a group of substances that he identified and named “antineoplastons”, which are concocted from a mixture of amino acids found in urine. Some people have experienced a remission, albeit temporary, and their cases are backed up by enthusiastic endorsements from grateful relatives. However, although there have been many requests for a controlled trial, none has ever been conducted in a form acceptable to mainstream scientists and it is impossible to know how often these treatments result in failure.

    Neighbouring clinics in Houston spend much time and money in caring for Bur­zynski’s former patients before they finally expire. Although his methods have been repeatedly criticised in the scientific literature, there seems to be no means of stopping him pursuing these questionable activities. He would be a comical figure – a kind of Donald Duck with a stethoscope – except that the life events in which he trades are pain, tragedy and bereavement.

    We need to demystify the problem. Cancer is ordinary; it is normal; it affects all of us indirectly and one in three of us will get it. To treat it as a sort of fairy-tale giant to be fought and conquered is to fuel unnecessary fear. The journalist Matt Ridley wrote in the Times in June: “Cancer fights hard. We must be bold to beat it.” Yet what we need is not boldness but patient, objective, scientific study, building theories on the known facts, testing them and rejecting those that do not work.

    According to members of the US National Cancer Institute, writing in the Journal of the American Medical Association this summer, the term cancer “invokes the spectre of an inexorably lethal process; however, cancers are heterogeneous and can follow multiple paths, not all of which progress to metastases and death, and include indolent disease that causes no harm during the patient’s lifetime”. The group urges that the word be used to describe only “lesions with a reasonable likelihood of lethal progression if left untreated”; pre-malignant conditions should not be labelled as cancers or neoplasia, nor should the word “cancer” feature in the condition’s name, it argued.

    We badly need a new expression to replace an obsolete and misleading term. I suggest “dDNA” (damaged DNA), which, after all, does reflect what is going on. When people ask their doctor the question, “Have I or have I not got cancer?” they expect a straight answer, but the question is not straight.

    A response might be: “We don’t use that word any more. What we do say is that you have a dDNA problem, which includes all sorts of tumours, some of them very dangerous and others much less so. In your case, we need to do further tests and investigations, at the end of which we will be able to get together and form a plan of action to put you right.”

    Adrian Marston is a former president of the Association of Surgeons of Great Britain and Ireland. He published his first article for the New Statesman, on Portuguese politics, as a 20-year-old medical student in 1948. This is his second article.

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    With so many writers and a production-driven style, Britney’s voice can sometimes be a lonely thing at the centre.

    Britney Spears
    Britney Jean (Universal)

    I once asked a gay friend what Britney Spears was for and he said dancing. The first time I heard “Work Bitch”, a single from her new album, Britney Jean, I didn’t think much of it. The next day it came on the headphones at work and I was thrown into life like a nodding dog on a bumpy road, thinking this is a modern classic. I like her mock English accent (“Go call the gover-nah”) – it was first premiered on the 2012 hit “Scream & Shout”, a collaboration with, and along with her use of the word “bitch” is one of the trademarks of new-era Britney.

    As she explained, shyly, on Alan Carr: Chatty Man in October, Britney says bitch “out of respect to the gays as a term of endearment”. She is as gentle as Kylie Minogue. This month, instead of going on tour, where in the past she has attracted attention for lip-syncing and apparent mental, if not physical, absence, she’s starting a residency in Las Vegas, home of Celine Dion. Noticeable on the Carr sofa was the huge disconnect between the personality of classic Britney songs – hot mess growing up into whip-toting sex mom – and the incredibly sweet person sitting there, almost too gracious to speak about herself, like a young Michael Jackson, and willing to describe her work as the output of a team – we did this, we did that. It’s unusual to hear this kind of thing in 2013, when six writers might appear on the credits for a song but the act itself is marketed as an autonomous one-person pop factory.

    Britney and her writers – I counted 32 on the album, including William Orbit and Katy Perry – favour the minor key for the new album, which works well to create the chilly, northern European, post-Abba disco atmosphere that underpins a lot of pop today. Katy Perry’s own music is filled with pneumatic beats, so the sad sound takes on a frenzied kind of energy appropriate to songs aimed at people on the club floor, dancing off heartbreak or whatever. Britney’s songs are more ambulatory, less pumping and production-driven, and her voice can sometimes be a lonely thing at the centre: “Alien” transports me back to long car trips over the fens in the 1990s listening to network radio.

    This is only partly because some of her studio techniques seem to be rooted in the decade she emerged from, such as the Auto-Tune that Cher brought to the wider world in 1998, which has never left us: there it is, all over Britney’s latest duet with (“It Should Be Easy”), their voices breaking up like a digital TV in a high wind.

    The ungrammatical “Body Ache” (“I wanna dance till my body ache”) is co-written with David Guetta and is covered in a classic rave wash with “boshing” drums and spiky pianos. “Tik Tik Boom” takes Britney somewhere close to abandonment: “You’ve got a sex siren in your face, let me get up on it”. But she has said several times recently that she feels silly trying to be sexy at the age of 32 and with two young children, and needs to move things on a bit with her eighth album. Thank God there’s no Beyoncé-style alter-ego here – how boring would that have been? Instead, she has given the record the name her parents gave her (her sister, Jamie Lynn, duets on “Chillin’ With You”), and there are moments that seem genuinely personal in their sense of vulnerability. “Perfume”, while a convenient reminder that Britney has brought out many successful fragrances over the years, is also a sad, strange song all about spraying your man in your scent to “mark your territory” when he goes to see another woman.

    Two bonus tracks (yes, I have the deluxe edition) would sit comfortably in a superchurch: “Brightest Morning Star” and “Hold On Tight”, the latter (“He ignites my bones ... I just wanna fall into his arms tonight/ someone tell me I will be all right ...”) being an ambiguous ode to a father, a good husband or a rather sexy Jesus.

    “You look like Austin Powers!” Britney told Alan Carr. She may look 22 but she is of another generation – a youthful, fascinating throwback to a time when there was no convenient way for a famous person to curate their private life for the world’s attention, and no expectation that you had to. As her professional and rather bland Tweets suggest, she has a pre-Twitter concept of what celebrity should be. When the meltdowns came, they were public and messy but not exactly explained. In some ways, her closest reflection in the modern fame frame is Rihanna, who has at times been on automatic too and doesn’t feel the need to give motivational talks to her young fans.

    But Britney, head-shaving pioneer of Middle America, also reflects something natural, which is a huge part of stardom – she can still look pretty bemused.


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    Pilgrimage; Byzantium
    BBC2; BBC4

    Is Simon Reeve the right person to present a travelogue called Pilgrimage? I’m not sure that he is. Yes, our young adventurer has the boots, the rucksack and the Gore-tex. Also, a handy flask-cum-Primus stove for brewing up tea on the road. But the King James Bible he most certainly is not. He just doesn’t . . . have ... the ... words.

    Faced with the shimmering causeway to Lindisfarne, close to which St Cuthbert used to pray devotedly in the freezing sea (after which even the otters rushed to warm the saint’s feet), the best he could do was: “I’m blown away by this.” When a friendly vicar told him that the Northumbrian landscape, wild and beautiful, might lead him to examine his inner landscape, he looked bemused. “I’m not sure I’ve got one,” he said.

    At Lincoln Cathedral, once the tallest building on earth, he tried his best to look awed. This viewer, however, couldn’t escape the strong feeling that he would rather have been racing through some godforsaken patch of Congolese forest, an army issue jeep shaking his bones like dried peas in an old treacle tin.

    I wonder if Reeve’s new series, which begins in Britain, extends to Spain and winds up just in time for Christmas in Jerusalem, is the result of BBC budget cuts. It feels that way. In the first film, he travelled from Northumberland, via Lincoln and Walsingham, to Canterbury. Why did he miss out Durham and York? All I can think is that was doing special deals on the Newcastle to Lincoln route (change at Newark North Gate, but please do not assume that the terrible muffin you’re almost certain to scoff at the Lemon Tree café can be put on your expenses).

    The result, though, was a slightly dreary tour, enlivened (I use the word loosely) only by a series of pre-booked encounters with various experts and borderline lunatics. In a Norfolk transport café, for instance, Reeve met a medieval food historian who told him all about the connection between meat and sin – less juicy than it sounds, alas – and then served up a special pilgrim’s lunch for him: potage, fried perch, apple fritters.

    The potage was broad bean-based. “Delicious,” said our young hero, wolfing it down. He also relished the fritters, sweetened, since this was a special occasion, with sugar rather than honey. What this added to our understanding of the pilgrim’s lot, I couldn’t fathom. Didn’t they mostly chew on old bones and stale loaves? And where the hell was the mead? But I suppose it was a good deal nicer for Reeve than yet another Little Chef all-day breakfast.

    The film told me almost nothing that I haven’t known since I read The Pardoner’s Tale at school. My jaw swung only twice. First, with the revelation that Lincoln Cathedral is on English Heritage’s “at risk” list. (How can this be?) Second, at the discovery that there is a man who spends much of his free time dragging a huge cross around the south of Britain.

    All right, so the cross has a little wheel attached to one end. But still. So far, this chap and his cross have covered 6,000 miles together, or so he says. Reeve, who has no faith, tried it out. But worn down by its great weight and perhaps by the fact they were strolling on what looked and sounded like the approach to the M20, he soon handed it back. The Lord alone knows what he’s going to do when he reaches the Via Dolorosa, along which some pilgrims shuffle on their knees. I hope there are skate pads in his rucksack.

    More holiness and debauchery over on BBC4, where Simon Sebag Montefiore is presenting a series called Byzantium: a Tale of Three Cities. Sebag Montefiore has a panama hat, the most camply sibilant voice since Kaa in The Jungle Book and, in his pocket, a copy of the Penguin Classics edition of Procopius’s The Secret History, in which the antique scholar does such a fantastic hatchet job on the empress Theodora. What a goer! In her young days, she could take on an entire dinner party, plus servants; the daughter of a bear trainer, she had a career as a burlesque dancer before falling for Justinian, heir to the Byzantine throne.

    As he told us all this, sitting in an Istanbul pavement café, Sebag Montefiore sipped his red wine somewhat carefully (I wonder if his director had suggested he lick his lips lasciviously; if so, thank God he ignored him). He considers Hagia Sophia, the vast church that Theodora and Justinian commissioned as an unfathomable expression of their magnificent virtue, to be the greatest building in Europe and, unlike Reeve, his response to its glories felt unmanufactured. The wonderment was gilded with learning but the reverence was fierce and fine.

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    Christopher Lee’s Fireside Tales
    BBC Radio 4 Extra

    Five nights of Christopher Lee’s Fireside Tales (repeated throughout late December, various times) will not be nearly enough. Let’s have 50. Let’s have 365! The actor reads classic 15-minute chillers such as W W Jacobs’ “The Monkey’s Paw” and Jerome K Jerome’s “Man of Science”, but is never better, never more Lee, than when delivering Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Black Cat”.

    It’s a story hideous in its cruelty – about a sadist who gouges the eye from his adoring pet cat Pluto – and Lee speaks with his usual, irrevocable seriousness and speed, making no more a meal of sentences like “mad I am not and tomorrow I die” than someone reading from a train timetable.

    Because of the whole Hammer Horror studio aesthetic – the Wagnerian soundtracks, the theatre-of-the-absurd dripping of bright blood on plump, moon-pale necks – Lee has a lingering reputation for ham that is completely unfounded. In fact, for Hammer Lee gave one of the greatest performances in British film. His Dracula glides up and down the stairs of his castle in a full-length cape that – miraculously – no more impedes his progress than if it were a bespoke suit from Savile Row worn by a star surgeon moving irritatedly from ward to ward followed by gasping nurses.

    As the count, he is entirely grave and uncynical. Now 91 and about to appear in his 205th movie (as Saruman in part 2 of The Hobbit) these too-brief and also entirely unwinking readings could not be delivered so well by another actor on the planet. Nobody else could say “violence to life” and “goaded into a rage more than demoniacal” with such appalling sincerity and calm.

    I thought of him at a Radio 3 recording of a service for Advent from St John’s College in Cambridge on Sunday. Before the recording began, a verger reminded the congregation that this was being broadcast and therefore please to ignore the rather bizarre fizzing and smoking of flies and moths as they flew into the bright lights of the sound desk.

    “Do not cry fire if you see the smoke!” warned the man. And then added with a small smile; “although you are permitted, of course, to mourn the passing of the insect privately.” Ah, how much better would Lee have been at delivering that final line. No smile, no wink. No mercy.


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    A new study has found large quantities of fresh water, trapped below the clay of the seabed - and repurposed oil rigs could be used to get it out.

    What to do with oil rigs in a post-oil economy? These large, bulky vessels could have other uses that aren’t quite as environmentally-damaging - like, for instance, extracting fresh water from giant undersea aquifers.

    A new study in Nature has found that continental shelves around the world are holding an estimated half a million cubic kilometres of either fresh or low-salinity water. This is good news for many of the world’s largest cities, in places like China, Australia, the Americas and southern Africa where growing populations need more and more fresh water.

    Here’s Vincent Post from the US National Centre for Groundwater Research:

    The volume of this water resource is a hundred times greater than the amount we've extracted from the Earth's sub-surface in the past century since 1900. Knowing about these reserves is great news because this volume of water could sustain some regions for decades.

    So when it rained, the water would infiltrate into the ground and fill up the water table in areas that are nowadays under the sea. It happened all around the world, and when the sea level rose when ice caps started melting some 20,000 years ago, these areas were covered by the ocean. Many aquifers were - and are still - protected from seawater by layers of clay and sediment that sit on top of them.

    There are two ways to access this water -- build a platform out at sea and drill into the seabed, or drill from the mainland or islands close to the aquifers.

    Oil rigs could be repurposed for this kind of drilling, it’s suggested. They often already drill into aquifers while exploring for oil or gas, ruining the water quality, or even use them as a place dispose of drilling waste like carbon dioxide.

    Aquifers, however, are a non-renewable resource, and like most non-renewable things we humans are proving adept at using them up. According to a study from last year, also published in Nature, the footprint of global groundwater use is 3.5 times higher than the rate at which it’s replenished, endangering as many as 1.7 billion people who rely directly upon the most under threat sources.

    More water would seem to be intuitively a good thing, but that shouldn’t distract from the need to improve our ability to conserve the water we use - otherwise, much like fracking of natural gas, it’s merely delaying an inevitable disaster. And, while the irony of turning a tool of climate change like an oil rig into something that mitigates it might seem cute, let’s not forget that the infrastructure required to power and transport that water from the rig might well be just as polluting as what it replaces. Aquifer depletion rates have been increasing, in part, because of climate change-driven factors like desertification.

    So, in related news, it’s nice to see another piece of oil rig repurposing announced this week - Australian firm AquaGen Technologies wants to deploy its tidal power generators on them. A series of floating buoys move up and down, generating power that can be used to power other equipment, or be transferred back to land, or even be used to desalinate water.

    Look, here’s a video:

    It’s not much, of course, but it’s a nice start, and another example of what we might come to use dead fossil fuel infrastructure for in the future.

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    Beyond the fun of Blackpool Tower and Pleasure Beach is one of England's most deprived communities.

    Photo: Felix Clay/Eyevine/Redux

    By late autumn, only the shop signs along Blackpool’s tired seafront are defiantly cheerful, with their promises of “family amusements” and “happy dayz” of discount rock and cheap cabaret. Every year on 10 November, Blackpool’s nightly illuminations are switched off, marking the end of the holiday season, and around 2,500 people become unemployed overnight. Cheap air travel has been slowly killing the local tourism trade for decades but no one has come up with an alternative to halt the town’s decline. 

    Two hundred metres inland from the promenade, pebble-dash terraces that were once guest houses and B&Bs have been converted into bedsits renting for around £65 a week and attracting a new kind of visitor. Blackpool has become a town where “you can turn up with a bin bag and £150, and you can get a flat,” says Simon Blackburn, leader of Blackpool Council. 

    We meet in his office in Bay House, a shelter for homeless young people at the end of a street full of run-down bedsits. Here in South Shore, a two-bedroom house is currently on sale for £40,000. Low property prices and fond memories of childhood holidays do attract newcomers, but, says Blackburn, “one of the main reasons someone comes here is because something’s gone wrong in their life”. He describes how he himself turned up in Blackpool well over a decade ago with just a sports bag and £170. 

    He was lucky. He first found a job working on Blackpool Pleasure Beach and a year later enrolled at the University of Central Lancashire, before eventually training as a social worker. As well as heading up Blackpool Council, he manages the Bay House shelter. “I earn 50k and that makes me a Blackpool millionaire,” he says, as Bentley, his eightweek-old puppy, attacks my shoelaces. 

    In a report released earlier this year, the Centre for Social Justice described British seaside towns such as Blackpool as “dumping grounds for people facing problems such as unemployment, social exclusion and substance abuse”. Few new arrivals can expect to find a job and the town’s cheap rental market makes it easy for residents to slip between the cracks of public health and child protection programmes. 

    “When the social worker or school nurse comes, or the health visitor starts being persistent and begins wanting to see your child, you can move a few streets away, with another 150 quid and another bin bag, and get another flat, and then another. We end up chasing people,” Blackburn tells me. He says he wanted to meet at Bay House, rather than in the rather grand town hall, so that I can see at first hand the social problems this is creating. He leads me out of his office to meet some of the hostel’s residents.

    “Everyone who comes here, all they see is the prom but as soon as you come one street in, you see this,” says Hayden gesturing vaguely at Bay House’s common room and the deserted street outside. Hayden, who is 18, moved into the shelter a year ago after his father tried to kill him. His parents had moved to Blackpool from Birmingham several years earlier to evade child protection officers who wanted to place him in care. 

    Hayden’s fiancée, Clare, whom he met at Bay House, also arrived at the shelter after fleeing violence at home. Together, they are trying to rebuild their lives but it’s a permanent struggle. Clare’s benefits have been cut because of a bureaucratic slip-up at her local further education college; they are living off a joint budget of £58 a week while they grapple with the paperwork. Both are enrolled in education and hoping for work but if they accept a job at minimum wage, with limited hours – the best they can wish for – their housing benefit will be cut and they will have to leave Bay House. “You just want to curl up in a ball and cry, because you feel like you’re in a never-ending circle,” Clare says. 

    Even harder than the daily grind of poverty is the everyday violence. “After 8pm, I don’t even dare walk to the end of the road,” Clare says. A few weeks ago she was held at knifepoint after men broke into her bedroom. On another occasion, a friend came into her room threatening to slit his girlfriend’s throat. “We thought he was just high and taking the mick, but we found out two weeks’ later that he actually did it.” One of the residents of Bay House was murdered at the end of the street last year and, five minutes’ walk away, Clare’s childhood friend Sasha Marsden was stabbed 58 times and set on fire in January 2013 by a local barman, David Minto. Minto had arranged a meeting with Sasha under the false pretence of offering her part-time work. In July he was sentenced to a minimum of 35 years in jail.

    When I ask Hayden how often he’s felt that his life was at risk, he splutters at the stupidity of the question. “I honestly can’t answer that. You know if you’re someone who’s from a nice home and everything, and you are like, ‘Oh this happened once’ or ‘These two situations’? For me, every single day there’s the potential of me losing my life.”  

    Rates of violent crime, sexual assault and domestic violence in Blackpool exceed national averages, in part because of the high rates of drug and alcohol abuse in the city: Blackpool has the highest number of alcohol-related deaths and the second highest incidence of opiate and crack cocaine use in Britain. Hayden and Clare’s parents were addicted to drugs, which Clare believes is a symptom of the lack of work or hope that affects Blackpool’s most deprived communities. She says her mother’s neighbours “are all involved in drink and drugs. Because they are on benefits and don’t have anything else to do all day.” 

    Substance abuse and high rates of mental illness – Blackpool has the country’s highest male suicide rate – have in turn contributed to the worst levels of family breakdown in the country. One in 67 children in Blackpool is in care, the highest in England. 

    Blackpool Council is trying to tackle these urgent welfare needs while also aggressively having to cut its budget. By the next election, its budget will be half what it was in 2009/10. “The one and only advantage of what the government is doing to us, which quite frankly is fucking us over, is that they are not being prescriptive,” Blackburn says. His council is taking advantage of this freedom with a bold change of tack. It is calculating that overhauling Blackpool’s housing stock will have a knock-on effect on individual wellbeing, public health, unemployment and anti-social behaviour – in Blackburn’s words, “You have to drain the swamp within which the problem exists” – and so the council is focusing its limited resources on property.

    The five council-run tower blocks in the deprived Queen’s Park estate are being pulled down – two have been demolished this year – and will be replaced by 198 family homes and apartments in low-rise buildings. Across Blackpool, council housing is being repurposed so that one-bed flats are converted to family properties. And, in March 2012, a selective licensing scheme came into effect in the South Shore area. Under the scheme, all landlords in the area have to apply for a licence, which costs £670 per house, flat or bedsit, with additional fees applied to houses in multiple occupation (HMOs) – usually ex-guest houses converted into five or more bedsits. Licensed landlords all have to agree to certain standards on property management. The scheme is self-financing. Proceeds from licences are used to fund a housing enforcement team and a transience team, who can refer tenants on to social services and public health providers.

    Councillor Gillian Campbell is responsible for the selective licensing scheme and often accompanies housing enforcement officers on their visits. “Some of the places we’ve come across have been absolutely awful. You wouldn’t let a rat live in them. It’s been disgusting and quite heartbreaking as well, because some people are used to it, they don’t think they deserve better,” she tells me. Some of the houses she’s visited have had no heating or warm water, or indeed no plumbing or water at all. The team has seen collapsed ceilings, dangerous damp, exposed wiring and people living with dead and decomposing animals. 

    At one point, after carefully checking whether I’ve eaten, Campbell whips out a photo of a corner bath filled to the rim with urine, faeces and loo roll. She tells me that a week ago she visited a flat where an elderly man had for years been using a cupboard in the hall as a toilet. Although the council is paying for a carer, no carer has been visiting him. However, the landlady does come each week to collect the rent, despite a smell so strong “it hurts your eyes”. Campbell says that when she confronted her, the landlady argued that “it’s up to him how he chooses to live”. 

    Some landlords are “making their money off human suffering and misery, and we won’t tolerate that any longer”, says Campbell, who at points in our conversation appears close to tears. Having herself struggled with mental health problems as a single mother living in a noisy, dangerous Edinburgh tower block, she says she’s painfully aware of how bad housing can affect people. She’s optimistic, however, that the scheme, which now covers 1,800 properties, is making a difference: “The residents are happy, the businesses are happy, the place feels almost cleaner and a bit brighter.” 

    But not everyone is convinced by the benefits of selective licensing, not least private landlords. Paul Bander is a board member of the Fylde Coast Landlords Forum, and owns a dozen properties in Blackpool. He says that forcing landlords to pay for licences is “heavy handed” and a “fee-grabbing exercise” for the council (the council insists that all of the money raised is recycled back into the scheme). “The vast majority of landlords are nice, law-abiding citizens; we pay our taxes and we provide a very useful social need because the public sector doesn’t provide enough housing,” he adds. He argues it’s not landlords’ fault when their tenants trash their properties. “The council loves blaming landlords, when the reality is they haven’t invested in Blackpool for the past 10-15 years,” he says. Both parties would agree that the relationship between landlords and the council is strained at best. 

    At Streetlife, a homeless shelter providing emergency short-term accommodation to young people, its chief executive Jane Hugo also voices concerns about the council. By demolishing one-bedroom flats in high-rises and clamping down on dishevelled bedsits, the council is reducing the amount of housing available to young people. Under-35s receive a lower level of housing benefit, and are more likely to be living on their own, so they cannot afford higher-quality properties. She believes that cracking down on sub-standard rental properties is a good thing, but alternative accommodation for young people forced to rent at the bottom of the market isn’t being found fast enough.

    At the same time, an amendment to council rules is creating extra pressures for young people in desperate need of accommodation. Since September, those seeking to access housing services have to prove that they have lived in the city for at least three years. For young people who have spent time sleeping on friends’ sofas, or moving from flat to flat and working cash in hand, providing the necessary evidence can be difficult. And while young people are trying to gather the paperwork they need, Streetlife is not allowed to house them. Unless the council changes its rules, Streetlife will no longer be financially viable: Hugo says her charity needs 75 per cent occupancy to survive but since September they have struggled to fill half the beds each night. 

    At Streetlife I meet Connor, a 24-year-old who had dropped in to the centre for some subsidised egg on toast. He had been sleeping on a friend’s sofa for the past few nights but a week earlier he’d slept on the pavement just outside the homeless shelter, knowing there were empty beds inside. “I curled up in a ball under a blanket. I even put my head underneath, just to stay warm,” he says. 

    Connor was placed in care in Blackpool when he was 12, and stayed there until he was 18. Six years ago, he moved in with his girlfriend in Thornton, a few miles from Blackpool. In the past four months, his mother died, his girlfriend suffered a miscarriage and then they split up. He is heartbroken – “She was my soulmate,” he says – but his more immediate concern is whether he’ll have to sleep rough again tonight. When I leave him he’s preparing to call up the council to see if they’ve come to any decision about his case or if he’ll sleep out in the cold. “We support the idea of a local connection, we can’t help everybody, but we would prefer it if people are treated with a little bit more dignity and compassion,” says Hugo, who is now lobbying for the council to change its laws. “The doors are being slammed everywhere young people turn.” 

    Even if Blackpool is able to regenerate its housing stock and if this leads to improvements in the city’s poor health and high levels of social breakdown, this will take years to make a difference. For young people, hardest hit by Blackpool’s social and economic decline, this is little consolation. 

    “A lot of this is about hope . . . Kids in here [Bay House], how do you tell them not to smoke, or to get up and go to college?” says Simon Blackburn at one point during our conversation. He says it’s difficult to keep them optimistic about the future when the best they can hope for is “a seasonal job in McDonald’s or on the Pleasure Beach”. It’s also about young people’s horizons; and their sense of belonging to their town when they are socially and economically excluded. Blackburn tells the story of how this summer, some of the women at Bay House had laid out towels in the grit and the oil outside the neighbouring garage to sunbathe. He had to persuade them to walk the few hundred metres to sunbathe on the beach – the possibility hadn’t occurred to them. 

    Hayden and Clare are teenagers yet they sound resigned to being part of a lost generation; their ambitions are centred on bringing up children with better life chances than they ever had. Once they have completed their movingly modest “five-step plan”, which culminates in buying a flat, Clare wants to become a mother and foster parent, to help children like themselves who “never got any love or attention”. 

    “I want to give them a good life, where they have clothes and don’t have to worry about when they will be fed, and I want to help them with their homework or if they want to go to university,” she says. And for her, that means one thing. “I want out of Blackpool.”

    Sophie McBain is a New Statesman staff writer. Some names have been changed to protect identities.

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    Jonathan Bate reviews Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World by Leo Damrosch and explores the world behind works like A Modest Proposal and Gulliver's Travels.

    Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World 
    Leo Damrosch
    Yale University Press, 512pp, £25

    Dr Samuel Johnson’s dictionary defines a novel as “a small tale, generally of love”. It was when Johnson was writing, in the mid-18th century, that the novel emerged as the dominant form of prose literature. Thanks especially to Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding, coming of age and falling in love became the defining characteristics of the genre, which Fanny Burney and Jane Austen would then bring to perfection.

    A generation earlier, the most widely read works of “modern” prose fiction were John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. All three of these titles became household names (The Pilgrim’s Progress remained the most reprinted book in English, other than the Bible, throughout the 18th and 19th centuries). All three share with Shakespeare the special distinction of having been rewritten and simplified as tales for children. Even today, people who never pick up a book will have heard of Crusoe’s island and of Gulliver among the little people. The words Lilliput and Yahoo have taken on lives of their own.

    Although the three books share some of the characteristics of novel and romance – adventurous journeys, an array of memorable characters, the growth towards self-knowledge on the part of the protagonist – none of them is a tale of love, and all of them have a further agenda. In Bunyan’s case, the real subject matter is the Christian life; in Defoe’s it is the distinctively Protestant virtues of thrift and self-reliance. 

    What about Swift? Gulliver’s Travels can be read in many different ways: as local satire (on particular political circumstances and scientific fashions), as parody of the kind of pseudo-realistic travel narrative represented by Crusoe, as mockery of utopian visions, as the misanthropic ravings of a furious old man. Three hundred years on, scholars and students still debate whether or not Swift the narrator is directing his irony against Gulliver or the talking horses known as Houyhnhnms (all you need to do is whinny). Or both. The fact the name Gulliver contains the word “gull” – someone who is easily deceived – is a starting point.

    We cannot begin to give decent answers to the questions raised by Gulliver’s Travels without a sense of its place in Jonathan Swift’s long and complicated life, which lasted from 1667 (probably) to 1745 (by which time he had already written his own epitaph, the magnificently self-knowing and wittily self-deprecatory Verses on the Death of Dr Swift). The Harvard professor Leo Damrosch’s new biography is to be warmly welcomed. Up until now, the serious student of Swift has had to rely on Irvin Ehrenpreis’s three-volume epic treatment, completed half a century ago. As Damrosch shows in a crisp and exemplary prologue, Ehrenpreis, for all his command of minutiae, was unnecessarily dismissive of certain items of contemporary gossip about Swift and over-confident in his psychoanalytic interpretations.

    There are sharp critical insights in David Nokes’s more recent Jonathan Swift, a Hypocrite Reversed, but it is one of those biographies with the air of being written by someone who dislikes his subject. Damrosch has all the virtues of both these predecessors and none of their vices. He writes elegantly, has exactly the right mix of empathy and detachment, and is admirably open-minded in his approach to complex evidence – some of it the product of very new scholarship. A reviewer never likes to say so, because it is such a gift to the publisher for the cover of the paperback, but in this instance it has to be said: this will be the definitive life of Swift for years to come.

    As is always the case in a cradle-to-grave narrative of over 500 pages in length, there are inevitably moments when the reader’s attention lags and the detail of dates and acquaintances, pamphlets and controversies, seems excessive. But overall Damrosch’s pacing is admirable. Without forcing the reader’s hand, he lets us work out for ourselves the nature of the primary forces that shaped the personality and the career of Jonathan Swift.

    There is the question of Ireland, to start with. Swift’s father was an Englishman with some good connections but, being a younger son, he was packed off to Dublin. Damrosch deals judiciously with some of the mysteries around the young Jonathan’s early years: a nurse taking him across the sea to Whitehaven, persistent rumours that he was really the illegitimate son of some great man. Scattered among Swift’s writings, especially his letters, are memories rich in biographical atmosphere. Thus of his schooldays at Kilkenny College: “the delicious holidays, the Saturday afternoon, and the charming custards in a blind alley ... the Confinement ten hours a day to nouns and verbs [ie Latin lessons], the terror of the rod, the bloody noses and broken shins”.

    And then the crucial relationship with Sir William Temple. Following the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the Roman Catholic faction focused itself on Ireland. Many Anglo-Irish Protestants such as the young Swift, who was at the time studying at Trinity College, Dublin, accordingly decamped to England. Soon Swift found himself a secretarial position with Temple, a gentleman of the Epicurean tendency in philosophy who sequestered himself on a fine rural estate called Moor Park near Farnham in Surrey. It was there that Swift met “Stella”, the young woman whom he would love and perhaps marry (even his closest friends remained unsure as to whether a secret marriage had taken place), and there that he wrote his first major work, A Tale of a Tub, a satire on the rival sects of Catholics, Anglicans and extreme Protestants.

    Swift’s letters to his intelligent and mysterious but frequently sick young female confidante were gathered and published two generations after his death. Though the chosen title, A Journal to Stella, is misleading, they reveal him at his most tender and witty. 

    The intimate voice, far from both the cool detachment and the fierce indignation of his published writings, is well represented by Damrosch’s quotations: 

    I dined today with Patty Rolt at my cousin Leach’s, with a pox in the City. He is a printer, and prints the Postman, oh ho, and is my cousin, God knows how, and he married Mrs Baby Ayres of Leicester.

    Pox and the City, along with excrement and the ladies, are among the themes of many of Swift’s best poems, which Ehrenpreis read in the spirit of Freud (much tutting about anal retentiveness), whereas Damrosch approaches them more fruitfully and generously in that of C S Lewis, who wrote of Swift and his friend Alexander Pope that “their love of filth is, in my opinion, much better understood by schoolboys than by psychoanalysts: if there us something sinister in it, there is also an element of high-spirited rowdiness”. 

    Damrosch’s Swift emerges as both Londoner and Dubliner, as friend and friendly critic, much more than as bitter satirist and twisted misanthropist. This is a man who, when dean of St Patrick’s, Dublin, prefers a compact movable pulpit on wheels to “the remote and massive one at the east end of the cathedral” because it brings him closer to his congregation.

    Lucid explanations are given of the political circumstances during the latter part of the reign of Queen Anne, when Swift moved in the same coffee-house and magazine circles as Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, playing the role of Tory antagonist to their Whig urbanity; and then of the publication in Dublin a decade later of Drapier’s Letters, which made him a national hero in Ireland and give justice to the claim that he was the authentic father of a tradition of distinctively Irish writing in English that extends to Yeats and Heaney. It was Yeats who translated the lines at the heart of Swift’s Latin epitaph into English: “He has gone where fierce indignation can lacerate his heart no more.” And it was Yeats who gave voice to what has been the thought of so many other Irish writers, from Shaw to Beckett: “Swift haunts me; he is always just around the next corner.”

    So, after all this, what does Damrosch make of Gulliver’s Travels? It is perhaps the only disappointment of this biography that his treatment is on the thin side. One senses the author is a little exhausted by the time he reaches the famous book, or that he has taught it to so many generations of students and read so many critical essays about it that he has nothing new to say. Readers will have to go elsewhere for explanations of how the third book grew out of Swift’s hostility to the materialist experimenters of the Royal Society (trying to extract sunbeams out of cucumbers) and how the fourth is best understood in the context of a satirical tradition extending back to Lucian in Greek antiquity.

    But Gulliver can look after himself. The shade of his creator should smile upon the Harvard professor, if only because this book is written in prose of true Swiftian lucidity. When we come to the late masterpiece, “A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland From Being a Burden to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick” (by eating them), the reader is left in no doubt that this brief pamphlet is the greatest short satire in the English language. 

    Damrosch transported me back to a school classroom where my brilliant English teacher presented us with an anthology of short essays that placed “A Modest Proposal” beside Hazlitt’s “The Fight” and Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant”. Swift, Hazlitt, Orwell: I, for one, can say that they were the trinity who taught me how to write.

    Jonathan Bate is provost of Worcester College, Oxford. His books include “The Genius of Shakespeare” (Picador, £9.99)

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    Like us, the Georgians drank tea and gambled, they read novels and gardened, they liked clothes and dancing and they were fascinated by celebrity and sex. New exhibitions at the British Library and the Queen's Gallery at Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh, reveal all.

    Georgians Revealed
    British Library, London NW1
    High Spirits: the Comic Art of Thomas Rowlandson
    Queen’s Gallery, the Palace
    of Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh

     ‘‘Georgians Revealed”, the title of the exhibition at the British Library looking at our 18th- and early-19th-century predecessors, is a complete misnomer. The Georgians have been revealed for years. We know full well that, in the words of the exhibition’s curators, they “made modern Britain”. Like us, they drank tea and gambled, they read novels and gardened, they liked clothes and dancing and they were fascinated by celebrity and sex. We know about Wedgwood, John Soane, Fanny Burney and, ad nauseam, about the tutelary goddess of the age, Jane Austen. We know that more than people of any other historical age, the Georgians were us.

    A more accurate title would be “Georgians Displayed”, since through 200 items the show offers a tour d’horizon of life from 1714, when George I acceded to the throne, to 1830, when George IV died. It was a period in which the UK population not only doubled in size but a large chunk of it became middle class. It is this section of society that is the exhibition’s focus.

    As befits the British Library, the bulk of the exhibits are on paper. Jeremy Bentham’s violin is here because the Georgians liked music. There’s a natty pair of men’s red shoes because this was the age of Beau Brummell, too. There are a couple of fashionable frocks and a few items of china but the rest is books, letters, maps, playbills, prints, and so on. The exhibition is skew-eyed in that it is relentlessly upbeat: there is nothing here about slavery, poverty or industrialisation – and we are surely the descendants of these forces as much as the Georgians’ shopping habits.

    None of the exhibits is remotely grand and it is this that makes the exhibition, on its own terms, effective. Most of the items could have ended up as 18th-century landfill but there is a certain poetry in the quotidian nature of a pack of cards or a “How to paint watercolours” guide. Some items are beautiful – Robert and James Adam’s upmarket design catalogue The Works in Architecture of 1778-79, for example – but most have no specific aesthetic merit. Yet they represent the weft and warp of life, none more so than the chest of gambling receipts and bills left behind by Byron’s friend Scrope Davies, who fled the country when he was unable to pay his debts.

    Another Georgian who suffered the consequences of debt was the caricaturist Thomas Rowlandson. His father was declared bankrupt in 1759 and the two-year-old Rowlandson was brought up by his aunt and uncle. 

    If the British Library’s exhibition gives the reality of the age, it is Rowlandson’s work that transmits its essential flavours, the tang and boisterousness of the times and their irreverence. Some 90 of his prints and watercolours drawn from the Royal Collection are on display at the Queen’s Gallery at the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh. That the royal family – a regular target of Rowlandson’s satire – collected 1,000 of his works shows an unexpected generosity of spirit.

    Rowlandson received a classical artistic training at the Royal Academy (from which he was nearly expelled for firing his pea-shooter at the female life model) and initially set out to be a sculptor. But his gifts were anything but marmoreal and by 1789 the poet Charles Shillito could declare: “Good prints by Hogarth, Rowlandson and such men/Are more esteemed than pictures done by Dutchmen.” It is a statement that neatly encapsulates not just Rowlandson’s success but British self-confidence and a burgeoning print-buying culture, too. 

    It also revealed a national taste for scurrilous caricatures of the type produced not only by Rowlandson but also by James Gillray and Isaac Cruikshank. Rowlandson was highly political, although far from partisan. In 1784, he produced prints both for and against Charles James Fox (with his portly figure and bushy eyebrows, a cartoonist’s dream) and during George III’s first illness, he was paid to make prints supporting the prince of Wales’s bid for the regency while later drawing various loyalist subjects.

    Royalty and politicians were merely at the sharp end of a society that fascinated him. Partly because of his spendthrift nature and unsuccessful gambling forays, he was forced to churn out great numbers of works: the mores of the age were a rich source. The preposterousness of old men wooing young women, the pretensions of the military, the nonsense of fashion, the scrum of the theatre: it all attracted his eye. What his humour tends to hide, however, is the skill of his draughtsmanship and that when he allowed himself to be gentle – while painting a riverside scene at Ferrybridge in Yorkshire, for example – he was capable of great beauty.

    If the British Library show were reduced to just one object to represent the Georgian century, Rowlandson himself would be the ideal exhibit.


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    ‘‘If we lose our curiosity, our ability to see things as if for the first time, we become less than human’’

    What is the most important invention of the past 100 years?

    I think penicillin, in terms of what it has done for the human race. But my second choice would be concentrated solar thermal generators. I think these are revolutionising our ability to make energy sustainably and I would put alongside them the need for continued research into tide power. We have got to get over our addiction to fossil fuels.

    What is the most important scientific discovery of the past 100 years?

    The Human Genome Project, as the most recent evolution of the 1953 Crick, Watson and Wilkins discovery of the structure of DNA and the double helix. But we have to put the woman back into that: Rosalind Franklin, who was never given a Nobel prize, was pretty poorly credited within the research that contributed to Crick and Watson’s model. The degree to which we share genetic material with all other living creatures is totally amazing. I think this re-emphasises the central issue facing humankind generally: how much is human nature part of nature?

    What has been the greatest sporting event of the past 100 years?

    It has to be the Paralympics. They have completely transformed people’s ideas about what a body is and how it can be celebrated.

    Which work of art has had the greatest impact on you?

    Walter de Maria’s 1977 work The New York Earth Room, in SoHo, New York. The work is a set of white rooms with light bulbs set into the ceiling, filled up to a metre deep in moist soil left simple, ungrowing. As you climb up the staircase, you can smell the earth. You come to a barrier that’s just a piece of glass, halfway down a corridor, from which you look down this gently rolling landscape of moist humus. 

    Here we are confronted with this: the base material of all life, not as a picture, but as a reality. It is the most radical landscape painting that was ever made.

    Who is the most influential artist of the past 100 years?

    As a sculptor myself, and feeling that sculpture is the most profound way in which our prejudice about the world can be challenged, I think Richard Serra. His structures invite first-hand, somatic, haptic, direct physical experience, bypassing our way of constantly reading things.

    And business person?

    It would have to be Muhammad Yunus, the Bangla­deshi microfinance pioneer. If we believe in social justice and the sharing of resources, we have to believe that all people should have a chance to share the fruits of their labour.

    And sportsperson?

    Jesse Owens, because of the whole story of the Berlin Olympics, the way he dealt with that – and the fact that Franklin D Roosevelt didn’t ever acknowledge his extraordinary four gold-medal victories. He was an incred­ible man, an exemplar of sport as a bridge across cultures.

    What is your favourite quotation?

    Constantin Brâncusi: “When we are no longer children we are already dead.” I think it is true. If we lose our curiosity, we lose our ability to play, to want to be picked up, to have a race and be the first into the sea, to see things as if for the first time. We become less than human.

    What is the most significant change to our lives you envisage over the next 100 years?

    It’s got to be climate change. I think that we are going to see more than 100 million climate refugees by the end of the century. The most significant change to our lives will be the degree to which we are able to change our core beliefs, because economic growth has been the engine for the west’s industrial, city-based civilisation.

    What is your greatest concern about the future?

    That we won’t face these things and that we will be extinct in the next few hundred years – or sooner.

    What will be the most dramatic development in your own field of work?

    I think the most fantastic thing that has happened in art is that it is becoming everyone’s. That there is the taste for participation in art as a space of possibility, as a place where human things can be discussed and felt.

    The tearing of fine art away from money and privilege, and the remaking of it as both a collective expression but also as a place of collective reflection – this has been the biggest change, I think. And the way in which museums have changed from being treasure houses to producing houses: places where things that had never existed before, never been seen or experienced before, are now being shared.

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    In little more than a decade, an system for detaining people who have committed no crime has sprung up almost unnoticed.

    Omar*, an anti-corruption campaigner who worked for Afghanistan’s finance ministry, knew it was time to leave his home country when armed men visited his house at night. On arrival at Heathrow, the 37-year-old was met by two officials who took him to a windowless room, confiscated his documents and locked him in there. Later he was taken to a security van and transferred to what, to him at least, looked like a prison. It was a journey of only a few miles, but Omar spent eight hours in the van while the driver waited to pick up others.

    On his arrival at the detention centre, the guards confiscated his remaining possessions and he was told he would be given a court hearing for his asylum claim. “You’re on the fast track,” they told him.

    To Omar, this was a shock. “For a civilised nation like Britain, I did not expect this,” he told me. “I am not a criminal.” From the point of view of the system, however, everything was going to plan. “Fast-track” detention, which is distinct from the practice of keeping failed asylum-seekers and foreign offenders locked up immediately before they are deported, is Britain’s standard method for processing “straightforward” asylum claims.

    Although most claimants live in the community while their applications are considered, asylum-seekers whose claims are deemed quick to decide – 2,118 people out of a total of 19,865 claimants in 2011 – are held at a detention centre during the process. It is one of the reasons why Britain holds more people in immigration detention – roughly 4,000 a year – than any other country except Australia. Yet a legal challenge that will be heard at the high court later this month could undermine this system.

    Launched by the Blair government in 2000 and greatly expanded in 2003, fast-track detention exists largely for what is known euphemistically as “administrative convenience”. After they arrive in the UK, claimants are locked up in a high-security detention centre; they are interviewed, their case is heard, and they are supposed to get an initial decision within three days. Difficult cases – survivors of torture, families, pregnant women, people with physical or mental conditions, potential victims of trafficking – aren’t supposed to be processed in this way: the fast track was designed for single people, largely those coming from “white-list” countries (asylum claims originating from such countries are more likely to be false). The system’s 99 per cent “refusal rate” on decisions before appeal would suggest that it is operating to plan – quick and efficient.

    And yet for Omar, as for many others, it hasn’t worked like that. First of all, he had to wait weeks for his hearing. He was introduced to his lawyer 15 minutes before the hearing began. The judge asked where the supporting evidence for his asylum claim was. It had been confiscated on arrival, he replied. Omar’s claim was rejected “for lack of supporting evidence”. He was given the right to appeal, which would allow him to stay in detention for weeks, if not months, longer.

    As Jerome Phelps, the director of the charity Detention Action, explained to me, such delays – as well as a sense that the system is stacked against claimants – are typical. The purpose of fast-track detention, he says, has shifted away from processing people efficiently to being “a system to remove people quickly”.

    Since 2005, the scheme has ceased to be reserved for asylum-seekers from “whitelist” countries. It is now used for anybody whose case is seen as “quick to determine”.

    This approach was criticised by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in 2008, on the grounds that it did not identify complex cases or protect vulnerable people effectively. Survivors of torture, for instance, are expected to arrive in the UK with “independent evidence” of their abuse in order to avoid fast-track detention – an impossible task for many.

    Detention Action has brought the legal challenge to the detention scheme at the high court, arguing that it does not protect vulnerable people and that the widespread delays in processing claims breach the right to liberty protected by the European Convention on Human Rights. Given that no political party is likely to support reform for fear of being seen as a “soft touch”, a battle through the courts is one of the few options open to asylum campaigners.

    In just over a decade, an unprecedented system for detaining people who have committed no crime, and who pose no threat to public safety, has sprung up almost unnoticed. The high court will decide whether the fast track is legal. For the rest of us, perhaps it’s time to decide whether we are happy this system exists at all – and, if not, what we should do about it.

    * Not his real name

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    We should be celebrating, not berating, the role parents play in the workforce and in society.

    Working parents, and mums particularly, get a raw deal. Often seen as scatty and clock watching, they face prejudice at work and can often be singled out for being more interested in what’s happening around the kitchen table than the boardroom table.

    I want to champion working parents and bust this myth, so in my first keynote speech as shadow minister for childcare and children today, I’m calling for a new debate about the role of working parents and their contribution to the workplace and society.

    Parents are highly productive at work because they have to be, often doing a day's work even before leaving the house. Yet many still feel guilty for leaving the kids and going out to work. My generation of women expected that we could 'have it all' but we are all too often still having to choose between career and motherhood.

    Balancing work and family life has become increasingly difficult for many parents. Public policy has failed to keep up with the changes in family life. We now have more women than ever in work; more women who want to work, and more who need to work; more and more dads want to play an active role; families need to work more hours and more anti-social hours to make ends meet; parents not only struggle to get by but also struggle for the time and space to enjoy their kids.

    That’s why we need a childcare revolution that puts parents in the driving seat and gives mums and dads a real choice about when and how they want to return to work after having a baby. To realise this step change, we need an ambitious agenda for childcare and family policy to crack the impenetrable glass ceiling for working mums.

    Labour’s new policy of an extension of free childcare for three and four year olds with working parents from 15 to 25 hours and the introduction of a primary childcare guarantee to help families manage before and after school care demonstrate that we are serious about supporting working mums and dads.

    I will work with parents and the sector to develop an ambitious agenda for childcare and family policy that meets the needs of families today and in the future. Working to build a movement for radical childcare reform that leads to a cultural shift in how we see childcare, how we value parents in the workplace and how we set a generation of women free.

    As the IPPR have reported today, boosting childcare will benefit the economy and increase maternal employment. In the same way we make the economic case for infrastructure projects, we will show that childcare isn’t an optional extra but fundamental to our future economic prosperity.

    Labour is the party of the family. The party of parents and the party of women. Labour understands this childcare challenge. I will champion this mission.

    Lucy Powell MP is the shadow minister for childcare and children  

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    At the latest count, wandering round my fun-filled room and my fun-filled mind, looking down the hall, opening drawers and cupboards, I reckon I currently have 20 different collections on the go. There’s my suffragette postcards, number ones of newspapers and magazines, my Lake District postcards, Beatrix Potter first editions, plus my two big collections – the Beatles and football.

    What I have learned from 40 odd years of collecting rubbish, sorry I mean treasures, is that the more collections you have, the more chance you have of finding something to buy in any old junk shop, any old where.

    The other thing I have learned is that from a value point of view – which I am not interested in, as I do it for amusement – it is always best to buy one decent item than a load of second-rate stuff. A rule I advise, but personally never follow.

    In the days when I collected stamps, I knew that buying five Penny Blacks at £20 each was financially stupid. I should be buying one Penny Black for £100. A good one would always go up in value, whereas poor stamps with thins and missing margins (technical terms, don’t worry), would always be poor and worth little. 

    But it was fun, having five Penny Blacks to ogle. 

    So André, don’t you wish Spurs had acquired one superstar, even at a colossal price, rather than seven half-decent stars at the same price for whom you are unlikely ever to get your money back ? 

    Because of the sale of Gareth Bale to Real Madrid for £86m, Spurs were able to spend £110m on – oh God, I’ve got to check their names, yet I’ve just been watching them play Man United. I had heard of only three of them before they arrived yet I like to think I am aware of all the up-and-coming stars in Europe, as God knows I spend enough time watching them on telly. 

    I did know about Christian Eriksen, who almost four years ago got into the Danish team and was hailed as a new wonder. 

    I also suspected there could be something not so good about him or he would long since have been bought by a major club. 

    I’d heard vaguely of Roberto Soldado, scoring goals in Spain; and Paulinho, as he had just got into the Brazil team. But the other three – Nacer Chadli, Étienne Capoue and Erik Lamela – I had no image of. 

    Still haven’t. If I met them in my porridge, I’d not be able to identify them.

    Spurs bought the seven players because they could, because they had the money coming, and it was fun to stock up. Which is what I think to myself when I buy cheap footer programmes in charity shops, only to find I already have them when I get home. Just as Spurs did, continually buying the same sort of boring, pedestrian midfielder.

    I might, of course, get home and find a hidden gem, something overlooked by other collectors, which is presumably what Daniel Levy, the Spurs chairman, hoped. Lamela and Soldada were in fact quite expensive, around £30m each, but surely Eriksen, at only £11m, with his obvious talent, could be fattened up, toughened up, and might eventually be like Luka Modric and sold for double. Bale was sold for over ten times what they paid. Fat chance of that happening again.

    The team were not total rubbish in their draw with Man United, compared with their humiliation by Man City, but I suspect in January, if the seven new players were put on the market again, none would fetch even half what they cost.

    I don’t suppose Villas-Boas had much say in it, but Spurs have ended up losing their only two good, really valuable players  – Bale and Modric – with nothing to show for it, sinking towards a middling, piddling position in the Prem.

    With hindsight, it would clearly have been better to have bought one or at most two expensive, world-class players – if, that is, they would have come – rather than a handful of cheapos.

    I do get fun out of looking at my tatty, cheapo collections, playing with them, hanging them on my walls. Cheapo players, though, they still have to do the business, not just look pretty on the bench.

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    Written by Time’s Mark Halperin and New York Magazine’s John Heilemann, this book is based on more than 500 in-depth interviews with everyone from junior advisers to the candidates, recorded on the condition of a strict embargo.

    Double Down: the Explosive Inside Account of the 2012 Presidential Election
    Mark Halperin and John Heilemann
    W H Allen, 499 pages, £20

    As the sunset spread across the Ohio plains on 3 October 2012, I was driving my ancient,  temperamental white Chevy – a regrettable impulse purchase from a Chicago shyster – north up the freeway from the small town of Hicksville, where I was staying, towards the Democrat campaign field office in Toledo. I was on my way to watch the election season’s first presidential debate.

    Toledo is an auto-industry town, gritty and blue collar. Some 60 or 70 people were in the office. It was a diverse crowd: young and black, Latino and white working class – the magic Obama coalition that had taken him to the White House in 2008. The campaigners laid on pizza and snacks and I set up my laptop next to a ten-year-old black kid called Dandre, who told me he was excited “just to see the president; to know he’s the president”.

    At the same time – as Double Down, an account of the 2012 presidential campaign, reports – Mitt Romney was backstage in Colorado, excited and raring to go. He had spent the afternoon playing Jenga with his grandchildren. The book describes the challenger’s pre-debate moments with his closest adviser, Stuart Stevens, in intimate detail: “‘You control this debate from four corners,’ Stevens said. ‘Don’t take the rhythm of the debate from him. It all comes to you. You control it. All these people wanted to be here, at this moment. You’re here. You’re gonna own this.’ Romney smiled and said, ‘I think we’ll have fun.’”

    Obama, the book reveals, was not so sanguine. He could not find a free phone line to call his daughters; he had not slept well. He had eaten in a rush and was rattled. On the ground in Toledo, all I knew was what I saw: a tired-looking president, off his game, and an unexpectedly fired-up Romney. The volunteers tried to put on a brave face but even Dandre looked a little disheartened. 

    Before the debate, I had been covering a foregone conclusion. When I drove home that night, it felt like anybody’s race.

    Written by Time’s Mark Halperin and New York magazine’s John Heilemann, Double Down is based on more than 500 in-depth interviews with everyone from junior advisers to the candidates, recorded on the condition of a strict embargo. The book takes a scalpel to the Obama and the Romney campaigns, revealing the frantically churning entrails beneath the surface.

    The 2012 election may not have been painted in the broad narrative brushstrokes of Obama’s first but Halperin and Heilemann navigate the choppier, muddier waters with the same aplomb that they brought to their barnstorming story of the 2008 race, Game Change. Their access is, as before, unparalleled and the insider details they provide are extraordinary. All the double-crosses and tactical manoeuvres in the big moments of the campaign are laid bare.

    The authors write at a vigorous pace throughout but the narrative is most gripping when describing the scrappy Republican primary race. One figure looms large here: the ridiculous titan Donald Trump, who spent much of the run-up to 2012 demanding to see Obama’s birth certificate before briefly floating the idea of running. 

    In one speech, Trump addressed China directly with the words: “Listen, you motherfuckers . . .”

    Using material from what must have been an absolute riot of an interview, the authors take us inside Trump’s head. He mulls whether to rule himself out in May when, almost unbelievably, he was polling highest among all the candidates: “Am I the only guy in history at number one in the polls who got out?’ Trump asked himself. ‘Am I fucking crazy?’”

    There are occasionally odd episodes when the writing process becomes a meta-theme within the campaign, such as at this point, early in the campaign: “Obama was in the Oval Office early that Thursday, November 10 – and being told that his list had leaked. The details came from [the Obama adviser David] Plouffe and [the campaign manager Jim] Messina, who had learned that two authors writing a book on the 2012 campaign knew all about the extraordinary session six weeks earlier; they had the whole roster of Obama’s regrets in copious detail. ‘How could someone do this to me?’ Obama asked.” It is a head-twisting moment: the two authors were Halperin and Heilemann and this is that book.

    This kind of reportage only works because of the unique pomp and circumstance of an American presidential race. In Ohio, where I was, people joked that the main cause of traffic jams in crucial cities such as Toledo, Cleveland and Cincinnati was campaign motorcades. It is impossible to imagine a book of such excitement and grandeur about the race to win Solihull or Southampton Itchen. Though we may sensibly thank our lucky stars for it, our political theatre is the poorer because there is no British Donald Trump.

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    The take-home message on smoking from science? Quit now.

    The government has been applauded for picking up the issue of plain packaging for cigarettes, but it should never have dropped the idea in the first place. There is overwhelming evidence that removing the branding from cigarette cartons makes smoking less appealing.

    Research published in the British Medical Journal in July showed that Australian smokers perceived plain-packaged cigarettes to be of lower quality, and so less satisfying. Removing the branding made smokers think more often about kicking the habit and put quitting higher on their personal agenda.

    Given that children living in a household where a parent or sibling smokes are three times more likely to start doing the same, that can only be a good thing, especially as 91 per cent of smokers first start lighting up in their teenage years. To summarise, the evidence says that if we remove the branding, people enjoy their cigarettes less, are more likely to give up and usually quit sooner. The result will be a lower uptake of smoking in the long term. What’s left to debate?

    Female smokers should take special note. Breast cancer might grab more headlines, but lung cancer kills more British women. The UK has the highest rate of female lung cancer in the European Union, and although lung cancer is killing ever fewer men, it is killing increasing numbers of women. Projections from current data tell us that deaths from lung cancer will be down by 19 per cent among UK males by 2030. For women, they will be up by almost 4 per cent.

    An epidemic of quitting smoking would change that, as a Cancer Research UK study published in January makes clear. Follow a group of female smokers and an equal number of non-smokers for just 12 years, and by the end of your study there will be three dead smokers for every dead non-smoker. Two-thirds of female smokers who die in their fifties, sixties and seventies in the UK are killed by the tobacco smoke they have inhaled over the years.

    The change in people’s prospects if you can get them to quit is startling. Quit by the age of 40, and the increased chance of dying due to having been a smoker drops by over 90 per cent. Quit before you’re 30, and the increased risk falls by 97 per cent. The take-home message from science? Quit now.

    We’re not exactly bursting with resources to deal with the disease. The UK Lung Cancer Coalition reported in November that 46 per cent of lung cancer patients had experienced delays in their care; more than half had received inaccurate information about their diagnosis.

    Here’s another number for you – 9 per cent. That’s your chance of being alive five years after a diagnosis of lung cancer. And don’t think that science is about to come up with a miracle cure. The development of designer drugs that attack the genetic features of a specific cancer may sound like an impressive advance, but analysis of the effects of 15 “breakthrough” therapies, published this past week, has shown them to be far less effective than initially thought.

    The one positive development is that the take-up of smoking among young women is falling slowly in the UK. The present high death rates can be traced to women who started smoking in the 1960s and 1970s, but that peak in uptake has passed. Only two years ago, girls were adopting the habit at a higher rate, but girls aged 11-15 are now no more likely to smoke than boys in the same age group.

    Still, at a time when 570 children start smoking in the UK every day, deciding whether to introduce plain cigarette packaging to deter new smokers isn’t rocket science.

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