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    Shaker Aamer is the last British citizen to be held at Guantanamo Bay. He has been detained without charge since November 2001.

    I have been in Guantanamo Bay for almost 12 years now. I arrived on Valentine’s Day in 2002, the day my youngest son, Faris, was born. I have never seen him; nor have I seen my other three children or my wife, all of whom live in south London, in years. I have been cleared to leave here for over half of my time behind bars – first by the Bush administration in 2007 and then by the Obama government in 2009 – and yet I remain here.

    My lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith, comes to see me every three months or so. I ask him to bring me books. When I am allowed to read, for a short while it lifts the heavy gloom that hangs over me. Clive amuses himself (and me) by testing what the censors will let through. It is difficult to identify a consistent or logical basis for the censorship: in months gone by, I have been allowed to read Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell but Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago did not make it through.

    On his most recent visit in October, Clive gave me a list of the titles he had dropped off for me, so I could let him know later which books had been banned by what I prefer to call the “Guantanamo Ministry of Information”. One was Booky Wook 2 by Russell Brand. I understand that Brand uses too many rude words. I suppose you have to be amused by that: the US military is solicitous of my sensitive nature and wants to protect me from swearing. These are the same people who say that all of us at Guantanamo are dedicated terrorists.

    I am not surprised that they banned The Rule of Law by Lord Bingham, who was formerly the senior law lord in the UK. They had to be consistent. They have banned the rule of law in Guantanamo, so it wouldn’t make sense to permit a book on such a contraband concept.

    They censored Blasphemy: How the Religious Right Is Hijacking Our Declaration of Independence by Professor Alan Dershowitz of Harvard. I suppose that is understandable, as well. They portray me as some kind of religious nut, just because I am a person of faith. The God I believe in (Allah) seeks only justice. But the US military would not want me reading that some right-wing American people have interpreted their religion as mandating the elimination of universal rights.

    Finally, they banned Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky, perhaps because the Russian author didn’t write No Crime but We’ll Still Have Some Punishment, which would have been better suited to Guantanamo. After all, I (like others) have had 4,360 days of punishment without ever being accused of any offence.

    None of this alters my list of favourite books. Of those that I have been allowed to read here, Nineteen Eighty-Four remains close to the top. After all, the Ministry of Truth still controls all the information about Guantanamo Bay and everything it says is the truth. I understand that. Far be it from me to question the decision of the ministry when it comes to identifying authors whose ideas might be detrimental to my well-being.

    As related to his lawyer on 5 December

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    Though disallowed from the 2014 presidential race, Fawzia Koofi is optimistic about her political career in Afghanistan. Yet it is not clear what will happen to the state of women's rights before the next one.

    Afghanistan remains one of the most dangerous places anywhere in the world to be a woman, or to be a politician, and Fawzia Koofi, a deputy speaker of its national assembly, is both.

    At least once a week, she receives a death threat from the Taliban or a warning from the security services about plots to assassinate her. In 2010 her convoy came under attack by gunmen as she was travelling with her two teenage daughters near Tora Bora. Although one of her guards was injured, Koofi was unharmed and she sounds remarkably unfazed.

    “We’ll all die one day, and if we die doing something good, that’s a big achievement,” she tells me when we speak on the phone. Despite the risks, she plans to run for the Afghan presidency in 2018.

    Koofi had been hoping to join the 2014 presidential race, but the minimum age to run for the post is 40, and she was still only 39 when candidates registered earlier this year. She thinks this isn’t fair, but is determined to put a positive spin on it: she says she believes that Afghan society will be more tolerant by 2018.

    There are signs, however, that life could be becoming harder for Afghan women. Although Afghanistan’s national assembly boasts a greater proportion of women than the UK parliament (28 per cent against our 23 per cent), the quota for women has been decreased from a quarter to a fifth. The International Crisis Group reports that since responsibility for law and order moved from Isaf troops to Afghan national security services, attacks on women have been increasing. Already, 87 per cent of Afghan women have suffered psychological, sexual or physical violence, a UN survey says.

    Insurgents have targeted women’s rights activists. In July – and again in September – the most senior policewoman in Helmand was shot and killed. In August, two MPs were attacked; another was kidnapped by the Taliban for three weeks. In July, the MP Noor Zia Atmar moved into a shelter to escape her abusive husband.

    The odds have been stacked against Koofi since birth. When she was born, her disappointed relatives, who wanted a boy, left her out in the sun to die until her mother was well enough to rescue her. Her father was an MP who built the first school in the village but forbade his daughters to study there. When Koofi was three he was assassinated by the mujahedin. She persuaded her family to allow her to study and would have become a doctor, if the Taliban hadn’t taken control in her first year in medical college and banned women from it. Her husband, a university professor, was arrested by the Taliban and died in 2003 from tuberculosis he contracted in prison.

    “The discrimination and the injustice I faced during the Taliban gave me the strength and the motivation to want to change something,” she says. When the Taliban fell in 2001 she launched a political campaign to promote girls’ education and four years later she won her first seat in parliament.

    She wants to improve the lives of Afghan women as president, and to clamp down on corruption, strengthen the rule of law and help define a “moderate Islam, with which we can create a longer-term strategic partnership with the world, and create an atmosphere and environment in which people can enjoy their lives”. Koofi’s greatest fear now is that, after international troops withdraw in 2014, the Taliban will regain the upper hand.

    She hopes above all that her work will allow her daughters to have an easier life. “I always tell them to be brave and to make sure they are educated, because a girl’s education is the most important thing in her life,” she says. “I wouldn’t be where I am now if I wasn’t educated, and whatever happens to me, they must continue their education.”

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    Public school alumni fought bravely and suffered disproportionately heavy losses during the Great War.

    They died at nearly twice the rate of other British soldiers who fought in the First World War. Yet today, the common view is that deluded public school alumni were responsible both for the folly of taking the country into the war and fighting it with shocking callousness towards the ordinary soldier. The rank and file, drawn from cities, towns and villages across Britain, put their trust in their public school-educated officers, only to be mown down in their hundreds of thousands while the officers sipped sherry and claret in chateau headquarters comfortably behind the front line. In short, while the working-class man at the front spilled his blood and his bereaved wife and children suffered deprivation, poverty and worse, the public school boy came out of it all right, having had a rather spiffing time.

    While the politicians and generals were criticised by contemporary poets and artists, the castigation of the public schools began in the 1960s. The publication in 1961 of Alan Clark’s The Donkeys, a study of the Western Front in 1915, was one of the earliest portrayals of public school generals as callous fools. Clark, himself educated at Eton, drew the title from the popular expression “lions led by donkeys”, contrasting the heroism and sacrifice of ordinary British soldiers with the doltish commanders who led them. The book inspired the 1963 musical Oh! What a Lovely War, directed by Joan Littlewood, and its 1969 film adaptation directed by Richard Attenborough. Their savage attack on the political and military elites harmonised perfectly with the anti-establishment zeitgeist of the decade and gained added authenticity by the use of songs from the period.

    Blackadder Goes Forth, the fourth and final series of the BBC comedy, was first screened 20 years later, in the autumn of 1989. As a parody of public school boy behaviour and language, it is perfection. The final epi­sode, which culminates in the characters played by Rowan Atkinson, Hugh Laurie and Tony Robinson going over the top, has achieved cult status as representing the defining truth about the war and is regularly shown in schools. As the historian Richard Holmes writes, “Blackadder’s aphorisms have become fact ... A well-turned line of script can sometimes carry more weight than all the scholarly footnotes in the world.”

    The role of public schools in instilling a culture that resulted in the slaughter on the Western Front was given a powerful endorsement in Peter Parker’s book The Old Lie: the Great War and the Public School Ethos, first published in 1987. “It is no dis­respect to the dead to regret that many of them fought and died for all the wrong reasons,” he writes. “That men dribbled footballs towards the enemy trenches does not mean that the war was a game. That men died for an ethos does not mean that the ethos was worth dying for.” The Victorian and Edwardian public schools, Parker argues, have a serious case to answer.

    Twenty years later, in a new edition of his book, he writes that he would not alter his thesis in any way. Parker’s anger spills out on every page, so affected is he by the multiple stories of “those blown to irrecoverable bits by explosives, or left to die slowly in the mud and filth of no-man’s-land”.

    Public schools are firmly in the dock, accused of the contradictory positions of utilising clinical efficiency in killing and of amateur incompetence and other-worldliness. Their emphasis on Christianity and patriotism, it is said, bred unquestioning minds that were ready – indeed, avid – to give all in their service to God and country. Few in positions of power or influence over the past 50 years have been prepared to say much in defence of public schools, while choosing them overwhelmingly as the places to educate their children.

    The time has come for a fresh look. Were the top commanders as uniformly inept and callous as widely believed? Were the generals acting out some public school fantasy, or were their decisions coloured more by their prolonged exposure to the uncompromising military strategies of the time? Were the junior officers, whose thinking was powerfully shaped by their recent experience of school, shallow and unfeeling? Were the schools homogeneous authoritarian factories, or did some produce sensitive and rebellious young minds? Was the “public school ethos” as sinister as it has been portrayed?

    A public school education provided young officers with many of the qualities required to survive the horror of the trenches. The discipline may have been strict, the living conditions spartan, the punishments severe and the sport overpowering, but from these came the ability to endure, a sense of duty, service and responsibility, team spirit, loyalty, courage, self-confidence and patriotism and the need to set an example – qualities that all proved useful on the battlefield, as did the training received in the officers’ training corps. If you were an ordinary private, scared and disorientated, you appreciated an officer who had those traits and background experience.

    As George Orwell, who was educated briefly at Wellington and then Eton, argued, the “middle classes are trained for war ... not technically but morally”. Their tragedy was that they assumed this role in a new “industrial war”, which could not be won by courage and self-sacrifice alone. The senior commanders can be accused with some justification of exploiting the goodwill and character of the public school junior officers, who inspired their men to go over the top to die in numberless thousands.

    The “public school type” was in truth far from homogeneous. The image of the bluff, unquestioning, anti-intellectual hearty, motivated by simple ideals of loyalty, duty and patriotism, is certainly true of some. Many of them died gallantly on the battlefield, revolver in one hand, whistle in the other. But at the other end of the spectrum were those who questioned the war but saw the futility of such questioning. These were men of the calibre of the poet Charles Sorley (Marlborough) and the musician George Butterworth (Eton), intellectuals and artists, deeply cultured young men whose lives had been enriched by their contact with excellent teachers and who themselves enriched the intellectual life of their school. The public school dead of 1914-18 did not die and inspire others to die for a sentimental ethos but for a country and a cause they had been taught to believe in. These character values should not be mocked: they have much to offer the young in schools across Britain today.

    Public school alumni suffered disproportionately heavy losses during the Great War. Whereas some 11 per cent of all those who served in the war died as a direct result of the fighting, the figure for public school boys was over 18 per cent. Those who left school between 1908 and 1915 died at even higher rates, serving on the front line as junior officers or as pilots in the Royal Flying Corps. The losses sustained by the upper and middle classes were heavy. Lord Salisbury, who was prime minister until 1902, was not untypical in losing five of his ten grandsons. Whatever else, the products of public schools were not shirkers. The vast majority could not have been more different to Captain Blackadder.

    Contrast Oh! What a Lovely War and Blackadder with the portrayal of public school officers in a piece of writing that much more faithfully reflects the multi-textured truths of the war, R C Sherriff’s play Journey’s End, first produced in December 1928. Nowhere in Oh! What a Lovely War or Blackadder can be found characters like Captain Stanhope, the hero of Journey’s End. Despite being ground down by the pressures of war and its losses, he remains highly professional and caring of his men. Nor are there characters in the other two productions who compare with the young subaltern Raleigh, who follows Stanhope, his hero from his boarding house at his public school, out to his company on the Western Front. And there is no figure akin to Lieutenant Osborne, the avuncular public school master who cares devotedly for the soldiers under his command, as he does for his much younger company commander, Stanhope. It is hard to imagine a play more imbued with the ethos of public schools than Journey’s End. It is War and Peace compared to the comic-book japes of Blackadder.

    Stanhope, drawing on his public school codes of honour, challenges his colonel head on, when he pressures him to conduct a raid that Stanhope believes to be foolhardy and needlessly risky for his men. The colonel, taking his stance from the military code book, brushes off Stanhope’s protestations. The raid goes ahead with predictable results and Osborne, who holds Stanhope and the company together, is killed.

    The senior commanders had improved in quality by the later stages of the war. Six officers – Generals Horne, Plumer, Byng, Rawlinson, Birdwood and Monash, all of whom were public school educated – oversaw the defeat of the German army in the final months of the war. As the military historian Michael Howard has argued, there was no shortcut to creating the professional army that eventually won the war and without the sacrifice and leadership of the officers from public schools from 1914 onwards, the British army might have mutinied, as the French and Russian armies did.

    Neither is the suggestion that British generals all remained in chateaux safely behind the lines true. Fifty-eight officers of the rank of brigadier general and above were killed during the war and some 200 were wounded. All those who died succumbed to either shrapnel or bullets, evidence of their proximity to the front line.

    Looking after subordinates was an integral part of the experience of the public school boy. Those at boarding schools lived in “houses” run, in effect, by the older pupils. The training in leadership gained running houses and teams segued naturally across to the front line. It was said of Lieutenant Colonel John Maxwell (Marlborough): “He was the servant, as well as the leader, of his men: at all times and in all places they came first in his thoughts, and until they were made as comfortable as circumstances permitted, he gave no thought to himself.”

    Captain Graham Greenwell (Winchester), was in command of 200 soldiers in the battle of the Somme, despite being only 20 years old. He said that he was entirely confident in looking after and caring for the needs of his men because he had learned about serving selflessly at school. Lionel Cohen (Eton) promised his platoon sergeant, badly wounded at the battle of Neuve Chapelle in 1915, that he would “look after his wife and child if he were not to get better”.

    Not all public school officers were so selfless. Some were snobs, lazy or cowards. Captain Eric Whitworth (Radley) was appalled at the behaviour of two platoon officers who collapsed on the ground during each break on a route march: “They paid no attention to the men, nor talked to them ... I pointed out that it is the essence of leadership never to show oneself done in ... [Officers] learnt ... in leading his house or team ... In spite of the general criticism that public schools foster class feeling, he has learnt to really care for his men.”

    Some public school boys elected specifically to look after their fellow soldiers by serving in the ranks: Sergeant Major Frederick Keeling (Winchester), an assistant editor of the New Statesman, was one who chose this course before being killed on the Somme. R H Tawney (Rugby), the economic historian and Christian socialist, was another who chose to fight in the ranks.

    Public school alumni also served their fellow men as doctors and chaplains. Many doctors died while tending to the wounded. Others made pioneering contributions, such as Geoffrey Keynes (Rugby) – the younger brother of John Maynard and a close friend of Rupert Brooke – whose innovations in portable blood transfusion saved the lives of many. W H R Rivers (Tonbridge), who tended to both Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, advanced the understanding of emotional and psychological distress among combat soldiers. Anthony Bowlby (Durham), meanwhile, was responsible for moving mobile surgical teams much closer to the front line, saving the lives of thousands who would otherwise have bled to death on stretchers before they reached help.

    No single doctor was more heroic, perhaps, than Noel Chavasse (Liverpool College and Magdalen College), the only man to be awarded two Victoria Crosses during the First World War. Killed at Passchendaele, he had earlier said: “I can’t bear to think of my boys lying out there needing me.”

    Chaplains offered comfort to the wounded and dying, often putting themselves in great danger. Julian Bickersteth (Rugby), a public school chaplain, was present at the death of some of the 300 British soldiers executed for cowardice or desertion. He wrote in December 1917 of a young man, aged only 19, who had been broken by three years at the front: “It was my privilege to comfort and help him all I could ... and to stand by his side until the very end ... There are very few deaths I have witnessed which have so wrung my heartstrings as this one ... As they bound him, I held his arm tight to reassure him ... then he turned his blindfolded face to mine and said in a voice which wrung my heart, ‘Kiss me, sir, kiss me,’ and with my kiss on his lips and ‘God has you in his keeping’ whispered in his ear, he passed on into that great unseen.”

    Attacks on public schools tend to omit that their former students were often in the vanguard of criticism of the war. Some of the most savage images of the conflict came from artists. Few were more shocking than the painting We Are Making a New World by Paul Nash (St Paul’s); Over the Top by his brother, John Nash (Wellington); and the work of C R W Nevinson (Uppingham), above all his biting Paths of Glory. Paul Nash wrote to his wife: “I am no longer an artist [but] a messenger who will bring back word from the men who are fighting to those who want the war to go on forever. Feeble, inarticulate, will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth and may it burn their lousy souls.” Among the poets, few were harder hitting in their satire than Siegfried Sassoon, who had been a schoolboy at Marlborough.

    Ignored, too, have been the voices of criticism from within the public schools. At Repton School, Victor Gollancz, who went on to become a writer and publisher, ran current affairs classes and a magazine that were critical of the war. Opposition from the old guard in the school drove Gollancz and his coterie of boys, like the Robin Williams character in the film Dead Poets Society, to even greater heights of rebellion, resulting in complaints from the War Office and the eventual departure of Gollancz from the school.

    Shortly after Alec Waugh left Sherborne, he published his semi-autobiographical book The Loom of Youth, which was heavily critical of the ethos of the school. It led to a furious row and the headmaster having lunch with Waugh’s father in a London club, suggesting that the younger son look for another school. Thus did Evelyn Waugh end up at Lancing, to his lifelong chagrin.

    Most significant of all was the stance taken by the holiest of holies, the then headmaster of Eton, Edward Lyttelton. He had already created a stir by inviting a deputation of unemployed men to address the boys at the school. In March 1915, he preached a sermon urging caution before the entire German population was condemned and asking Britain to act compassionately in any final peace settlement with it. This was mainstream Christianity and I admire him greatly for his stance. The old boys and governors of Eton thought differently and a year later he was, in effect, drummed out of office.

    Many headmasters and teachers had similar thoughts and not only in Quaker schools such as Bootham in York and Leighton Park in Reading. The alumni from these schools often worked in non-combatant roles and several were sent to prison or sentenced to hard labour for refusing involvement of any kind in the fighting.

    My grandfather Wilfred Willett (St Paul’s) was shot in the head at Ypres. His dream of becoming a medic shattered, he instead wrote nature articles for the Daily Worker and became a communist in response to the suffering he had seen. He didn’t have a spiffing time in the war. Neither did tens of thousands of other public school alumni.

    Second Lieutenant Douglas Gillespie (Winchester) attempted to make sense of the horror by proposing a tree-shaded via sacra to run between the trench lines from Switzerland to the English Channel. Of this imaginary 450-mile memorial, he wrote: “I would like to send every man, woman and child in western Europe on pilgrimage along that via sacra, so that they might think and learn what war means from the silent witnesses on either side.” Gillespie did not live to discover that his proposal would come to nothing: he was killed in action at the battle of Loos on 25 September 1915.

    Anthony Seldon is the master of Wellington College. His book “Public Schools and the Great War” (Pen and Sword Military, £25), co-written with David Walsh, is out now.

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    Joblessness fell to 7.4%, the lowest figure since May 2009, but total pay rose by just 0.9%, a real-terms cut of 1.2%.

    In the form of today's unemployment figures, Christmas has come early for David Cameron. Joblessness fell by 99,000 in the last quarter to 2.39 million (7.4%), the lowest level since May 2009, while employment rose by 250,000 to 30.09 million (although the rate, at 72.0%, remains below its pre-recession peak of 73.1%). The coalition now has an unarguably good story to tell on jobs, something we can expect Cameron to make much of at the final PMQs of the year today. 

    But these headlines figures mask some worrying trends. Total pay, including bonuses, rose by just 0.9%, a real-terms cut with inflation at 2.2% over that period. In the public sector, pay fell in nominal terms by 0.3% (and will continue to fall in real-terms until at least 2015-16 due to George Osborne's pay cap). 

    As well as enduring a living standards crisis, with the longest fall in wages since 1870, the UK is also suffering from a crisis of underemployment. There are now a record 1.47 million people working part-time because they can't find full-time jobs. 

    The squeeze goes on

    Source: ONS

    The Tories remain confident that wages are a "lagging indicator" and that higher output will translate into higher salaries. As Osborne remarked after the publication of the most recent GDP figures, "If Britain is growing then the finances of Britain’s families will start to grow." 

    For Labour, this optimistic analysis proves that the Conservatives have failed to grasp that the crisis is not merely cyclical but structural. The link between higher growth and higher wages has been severed and will not be easily repaired. Ed Miliband’s team point to the pre-crash period, when incomes for millions of low-and middle-income earners stagnated even in times of strong growth, as evidence that the market can no longer be relied upon to deliver for the majority. In an economy as unequal as Britain’s, any gains quickly flow to the top. If, as forecast, wage growth returns next year, it will be of the unbalanced kind seen in April, when high earners collected their deferred bonuses in order to benefit from the reduction in the top rate of tax (the one month since May 2010 in which real incomes rose).

    If Labour is right, it is hard to see the Tories winning the credit they hope for the recovery. Confronted by Miliband's "cost of living" offensive, their instinct remains to shift the debate back to the macroeconomy. But they should be wary of relying on this line of attack. To most voters, after all, living standards are the economy. 

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    There are currently 211 journalists in prison worldwide, and over 50 have been killed doing their job.

    This year has been the second worst year for jailed journalists, according to a report by the Committee to Protect Journalists. Around the world, 211 are currently in jail, compared to a historic peak in 2012 when 232 were behind bars. Turkey still imprisons more journalists than any other country – there are currently 40 journalists in Turkish jails – followed by Iran (35) and China (32).

    Eritrea, Vietnam, Syria, Azerbaijan, Ethiopia, Egypt, and Uzbekistan rounded off the list of ten countries detaining the largest number of journalists. More than half of the journalists jailed (124) were charged with anti-state offences, like terrorism or subversion – but 45 have not been formally charged at all.

    The CPJ’s list does not include journalists who have been abducted or are missing – there are, for instance, at least 30 journalists missing in Syria. It is possible that this figure is even higher, but it is not uncommon for a media blackout to be imposed on kidnap cases to protect hostages. 

    Overall 52 journalists have died this year according to CPJ (although Reporters without Borders places this figure at 71) – including 21 in Syria, 6 in Egypt and 5 in Pakistan. This is fewer than last year, when 73 died (including 21 in Syria alone), but still far too high. Over the past 21 years, since CPJ started collecting this data, over a thousand journalists have died doing their jobs, with Iraq, the Philippines, Algeria, Russia and Syria the most deadly places for journalists to work.

    It can be hard to appreciate in the UK, where the press is still tainted by phone-hacking scandals, but journalists – and in particular those brave enough to report on war-zones or challenge authoritarian governments – can be among of the most powerful weapons against state brutality and oppression; the death and detention of journalists is more than just a personal tragedy.

    It would be nice to think that next year will be a safer year for journalists, but I see little evidence that things will change.

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    It's not been a great year for gaming (the PS4 and XBox One launches have taken up a lot of developers' time), but there have been some good releases worth celebrating.

    It was always likely that 2013 would be a quiet year in terms of games with the arrival of new consoles largely stealing the show, and so it turned out to be. Even GTA V, one of the biggest success stories in media history, was very much an exercise in following the proven route. The surprise hit of the year was Gone Home, a game that was such a brazen affront to the warrior spirit of Brodudes everywhere that it will likely lead to the downfall of western civilisation as we know it.

    With the Xbox One and PS4 going head-to-head, and Steam OS entering public beta, it looks like 2014 will be a very interesting year. Alas, 2013 has largely been spent watching the players take their places; it will be 2014 when they start hitting each other with chairs, demanding paternity tests and bleeping at each other vociferously.

    However despite the creeping sense of being in the calm before the storm there have been some great games this year, and, in no particular order, here are my three favourites (and some honourable mentions).

    Metro: Last Light
    At the start of the year I thought I was done with the corridor shooter, having not really enjoyed one since FEAR way back in 2005. In an increasingly tired format - hold down W, click on all the faces with the left mouse button, eight hours later game complete - Metro: Last Light renewed my faith.

    What Last Light managed to achieve in a way that recent Call of Duty, Bioshock and Halo titles failed to do is make the game actually interesting both through the use of game mechanics and the level design. The giant spider monsters, for example, must be deterred from attacking with light and are bulletproof all over except for their squishy underbellies. This means if you want to kill them you have to chase them into a corner with a torch, causing them to flip over in an angry, shrieking mess so you can shoot them. This is rarely practical, so some parts of the game you just have to fend them off with the light because you don’t have the ammo, the time or the battery power left in the torch to fight them. Because you don’t usually have to kill these monsters to proceed, you start to question whether you are even supposed to kill them, if they will just keep on coming anyway; you start to wonder if the game is telling you to run, if you are fighting a losing battle. Bringing that sort of creeping doubt into a linear shooter is genius level game design.

    The game also encourages you not to kill. Human life is valuable, even the lives of your enemies, with the human race as an endangered species. You are encouraged to avoid or knock enemies unconscious, rather than murder them all in honourable combat. The stealth system is not the best, forgiving almost to the point of comedy at times, but it provides an alternative to just blasting everybody. This is a game in a genre characterised by ever increasing levels of pointless brutality and yet you can go through it without actually killing another human being. That in itself is bordering on revolutionary.

    The story has a slightly crumby ending but it is gripping until you get there, and is at times genuinely moving. This is not a post-apocalyptic setting like that of Fallout, where the ruins of the old world are the stuff of legends and fables; this is a game set within living memory of the apocalypse itself, there is rawness and hopelessness to it. Lastly, the game is absolutely beautiful to look at - it's far and away the best looking game of this year, or any year for its type. The tunnels are suitably closed-in and creepy, while the outdoors is simply mesmerising, not just from the technical standpoint that it looks incredibly lifelike, but the design of it, the mournful majesty of it all, is incredible.

    Wargame: Airland Battle
    There is something beautiful about the Wargame series, something that speaks to what games design should really be about. There was no mass media hype, there was no attempt to court controversy or bait people for attention, there were no concessions made in the complexities for the sake of accessibility. Eugen Systems made a game, like the game before it, better; they charged a fair price; they fixed the bugs in a timely fashion and they provided additional maps and units over the months following release without charging extra for them. This should not be remarkable behaviour for a developer and yet in 2013 it is.

    Airland Battle is a real time strategy game set amid the cold war, pitting NATO versus Warsaw Pact in a Scandinavian theatre of war. There is none of the bombast and jingoism of the World in Conflict or Company of Heroes series, the game takes a naturalistic and pragmatic approach to the warfare of the era avoiding the easy stereotype of hordes of ill equipped Soviets against technologically superior but outnumbered Westerners.

    The game itself is phenomenally good - intuitive and absorbing enough to feel like a simulation, but balanced and designed carefully to provide a fair challenge. The result has a far greater feeling of veracity than something like Company of Heroes 2, while at the same time being easy to pick up. The inclusion of elements like cooperative play is also a very welcome improvement from the original and a good way to learn the game from more experienced players without going through the process of getting relentlessly battered by them in competitive games.

    Payday 2
    There is so much to hate about this game: the incredibly mean way that it withholds things like weapon upgrades and customisation options; the fact that it promised all manner of different heists and delivered instead a master class in location recycling; the fact that by the time your character is high enough level that you’ve unlocked the abilities required to be a sneaky criminal you have the firepower and armour to not need to sneak; the fact that the developers managed to turn armed robbery into a grind where losing your saved game can put you back to square one. All these things are easy to loathe. Really this game shouldn’t be anything like as good as it is, but so help me it’s just so much damn fun.

    Functionally Payday 2 is a cooperative arena shooter, but it frames itself as a game about armed robbery, which wouldn’t you know it is a vastly more compelling scenario than getting swarmed by zombies as is standard for this genre. When everything comes together Payday 2 feels like you’re playing through the big heist scene from Heat, and the game is designed well enough that it comes together more often than not. This is a great team game, tense, challenging and satisfying.

    While Payday 2 will always feel like something of a disappointment because of how much better it so easily could have been, it still deserves a lot of respect for how good it actually is. A lot of games have cooperative arena fight modes, from Mass Effect 3 to Call of Duty to Left 4 Dead and Killing Floor, none of theirs are remotely as good.

    It is also an interesting measure of where we are as a society when a video game about robbing banks and shooting vast numbers of policemen isn’t considered remotely controversial.

    Honourable mentions this year
    Saints Row 4: I couldn’t really call this one of the games of the year since it is such a markedly weaker offering than the second and third games in the series. However, it’s not bad, and if you absolutely, positively, have to end a series like Saints Row this is how it should be done. Hopefully this is the end. Much as I love the Saints Row series I would love to see the developers do something new.

    Tomb Raider: The return of Lara Croft provided a game that was not outstanding in any specific area but which managed to do everything that it attempted to do very well. This sounds like faint praise, but in retrospect, just looking at how many things Tomb Raider attempted, and succeeded at, it is actually quite a feat. It will be interesting to see what becomes of the franchise from here.

    XCOM: Enemy Within: Polished up and fleshed out the already pretty shiny and fleshy XCOM: Enemy Unknown. More missions and more things to do on top of an original game which was already very good can’t be a bad thing. Disappointingly, however, the developers chose not to address the problems with the difficulty curve that blighted the original game. If anything the MEC troopers just make the game even easier.

    Fallen Enchantress: Legendary Heroes: To sum it up very simply, this game is Civilisation set in a fantastical world of magic and monsters and it is very, very good. This is one of those games that you can lose whole days to; and they will be good days, spent in that comfy, contemplative state that only a proper grand strategy game can provide.

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    The danger for Miliband is that his "cost-of-living" attack will be blunted as the economic recovery accelerates. Labour must offer a bigger vision.

    In his final question at today's PMQs (the last of the year), Ed Miliband derided David Cameron for reeling off "lists of statistics" (1.2 million more people in work, 24 million people out of tax, a record 30 million people in employment and so on), rather than answering his questions. The line prompted jeers from Tory MPs because Miliband had spent much of the session highlighting his own stats of choice: energy bills up by £70, childcare costs up by £300, average wages down by £364.

    All were designed to reinforce Labour's message that Cameron is presiding over a "cost-of-living crisis" but today's session highlighted the danger for Miliband in relying on this line of attack. With the economy growing at its fastest rate since the crisis and unemployment falling rapidly, Cameron will be able to point to ever more progress as the election draws closer. Wages will likely start rising faster than inflation next year, the UK economy will pass its pre-recession peak and employment will continue to surge.

    The risk for Labour is that just as its "too far, too fast" critique of the cuts lost potency after growth returned (polls show that voters now believe cuts are good for the economy), so its "cost-of-living" attack will weaken as the public begin to feel the benefits of the recovery. Having been forced to retire his 'flatlining' hand gesture, Ed Balls may soon be forced to do the same with his new 'finger down' (in reference to the fall in living standards). Rather than trying to win a stats war with Cameron, Miliband need to focus on fleshing out his vision of a different kind of economy and a more equal society. It is this that will convince voters that Labour represents a genuine alternative, regardless of the progress Cameron can point to.

    The session was also notable for a new attempt by Cameron to drive a wedge between Miliband and Balls. He declared at one point: "Ah – we’ve got a new hand gesture from the shadow chancellor! I’d have thought after today’s briefing in the papers the hand gesture from the shadow chancellor would be 'bye bye' – you don’t need it to be Christmas to know you’re sitting next to a turkey!" The political logic behind these constant attacks is that the more the Tories deride Balls, the harder it becomes for Miliband to move him should he decide that Labour needs a new messenger as well as a new message. But while Miliband is undoubtedly ruthless enough to move Balls, the odds are still on him remaining shadow chancellor until the election.

    The other significant moment came when Cameron was asked about allegations that Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers broke the ministerial code while at Transport by meeting a lobbyist campaigning for a £400m railway depot in Hertfordshire. He replied by saying that he had seen a copy of the cabinet secretary's response and that it would be published "in the next few days". With parliament breaking up for recess tomorrow, Labour is now demanding that the findings are published "immediately".

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    Elon Musk's Hyperloop proposal seemed ridiculous, but it may surprise you to learn that the second-oldest underground railway in the world ran used a similar concept.

    Since the opening of the first underground railway in London 150 years ago we’ve settled on a mix of different ways for moving people through cities - train, tram, bus, car, bike, bus, foot. Through the years, though, major cities could afford to experiment with some pretty far-out technologies - and so it is with the London Pneumatic Despatch Railway (LPDR), a Futurama-ish tube that carried parcels and people beneath the capital in the 1860s.

    I first stumbled across the LPDR when reading up about pneumatic tubes after Elon Musk announced his Hyperloop idea. If you missed it, he wants to send people in capsules through a 570km-long pneumatic low-pressure tube from Los Angeles to San Francisco at speeds of up to 962km/h (yeah, really). I read that, then saw this:

    (Image: Royal Mail Group Ltd. 2013, courtesy British Postal Museum & Archive)

    That's a party of Victorians gathered around a "pneumatic despatch tube", and they look like they're going to send those two men through it in a carriage. What the hell was this thing?

    To find out, I asked Julian Stray, the senior curator of the British Postal Museum & Archive (BPMA) - and the story begins in the middle of the 19th century, at the height of the British Empire. And you’ve got to deal with mail. It’s all about mail.

    “The General Post Office (GPO) was the routing hub of the whole country,” Spray explains. “You would have had the foreign mails, the inland mails, the country mails, the mails to the provinces. Speed is everything. A loss of two minutes required a written explanation to one of the directors or the Postmaster General.”

    The bandwidth of this system was throttled by the narrow streets between the stations on London’s edge and the GPO sorting office in the middle near St Paul's Cathedral - horse and carriage traffic jams could have Empire-wide knock-on effects - and, in an example of what Spray calls “that Victorian endeavour, that willingness to have a go regardless of the cost of failure”, some canny entrepreneurs spotted a business opportunity.

    A group of men came together to form the Pneumatic Despatch Company. Its board was headed by the 3rd Duke of Buckingham, a close friend of Disraeli’s. Also involved were bookstore magnate WH Smith (yes, that WH Smith), and Thomas Brassey, an engineer who was one of the key players in the Victorian era’s “railway mania”. They were going to build a new kind of underground railway.

    (Image: Royal Mail Group Ltd. 2013, courtesy BPMA)

    In the summer of 1861, Thames steamship passengers floating past Battersea Pier would have seen a curious experiment laid out on the river bank. 411m of cast-iron tunnel, 80cm tall and a little bit narrower than that wide, with carriages disappearing into one end and reappearing at the other. It was a pneumatic tube, big enough for bags of mail - and people. Grinning lads would climb into the carriages, lie under a blanket, and get fired along the tube at speeds up to 30mph.

    Pneumatic tubes are still around today, in places like hospitals and banks. Most major cities in Europe and North America had their own pneumatic telegraph networks in the latter half of the 19th century, before the electrical telegraph took over - though some networks lasted for decades beyond then. François Truffaut’s 1969 film Baisers Volés features a scene with a character sending a letter via Paris’ still-operational pneumatic telegraph:

    The modern pneumatic capsule system was invented by engineer William Murdoch in the 1830s. These were tubes of a few inches in diameter, designed to carry small, light items, like letters. Powered by a steam engine, they worked on the principle of suck or blow (and that's not how Musk's Hyperloop would work, by the way, which achieves its high speeds by sucking the air out of the tube so there's minimal air resistance for capsules riding on rails). It's a simple system, and inevitably some engineers in the mid-19th century wanted to scale it up to something big enough to carry people.

    The most famous of these is probably Alfred Beach, whose 1870 Beach Pneumatic Transit was the first subway line in New York City (and which might be most famous now for its brief cameo in Ghostbusters). A tube-shaped train that could carry 22 people sat flush within a 2.4m-wide tunnel, blown along a 95m test track beneath Broadway. It was a popular tourist attraction at the time, but Beach failed to get investors interested in backing him in extending it into a proper underground railway (and a stock market crash in 1873 didn’t help either).

    There was a similar demonstration railway built in 1864 in Crystal Palace for the Great Exhibition, and there were some other experimental pneumatic trains in places like Devon, Dublin and Croydon, but there was never a full run at the idea that lasted very long. Pneumatic tubes are incredibly expensive to maintain when scaled up to the size of normal trains.

    Of all the pneumatic railways, though, the LPDR is the oldest - it’s actually the second-oldest underground railroad in the world, opening only a year after the first Paddington-Farringdon line of the Underground - and the longest-lasting of them all. “As a system it was fantastic,” Spray says. “But it was a failure.”

    The LPDR was built in two parts. The first, in 1863, was a single tunnel (the same size as the test one at Battersea) running from beneath platform one of Euston station to the Eversholt Street sorting office, a third of a mile away. But the second part, built between 1863 and 1866, was the main project - two tunnels, 2.8km from Eversholt Street to Holborn and 1.5km from Holborn to the main GPO office near St Paul’s.

    It’s 2013, so let’s map it:

    The reason it takes a long dog-leg detour down Tottenham Court Road is that the Duke of Bedford, who owned most of the land between Euston and Holborn, refused the Pneumatic Despatch Company permission to mine its tunnels underneath. It was a bigger tunnel than before, too - 1.5m wide - running just beneath the road surface.

    “It is phenomenal,” says Spray. “They had 21-foot-wide centrifugal fans at first powered by so-called ‘Cornish engines’, but they kept on handling it with bigger and bigger engines. It was some weight being transported in these things. Two of the carriages would be carrying about 12 tonnes, journeying at up to 30mph.” That's not bad - it was more than twice as fast as the 12mph trains on the Paddington-Farringdon line.

    When it opened, the great and the good of London’s political and business class turned out at Holborn station to watch the first bags arriving from Euston - and to have a ride on it themselves.

    “People would travel on it, clutching a tallow candle on their chest. It was the Alton Towers of its time. Occasionally as they came near the road surface they could hear the clatter of horse’s hooves on the cobble stones. It would dip down under Holborn, occasionally as it went low there would be a splash of water and a smell of rust, and they could tell where they were. There was a lovely report of a lady who was shot the entire length of the system, ‘who emerged virtually unscathed, crinoline and all’.” Visitors to London, including the son of Napoleon III, gave the LPDR a try.

    Yet despite proving a smash hit as a novelty, the LPDR proved rubbish at what it needed to do most of all - transport mail. The stations at each end were in basements, and once you factored in the time it took to lug the heavy sacks up and down staircases at either end there wasn’t any kind of time saving compared to the horse and carriage. This became a bigger problem when times began to slip beyond nine minutes for each leg.

    “It slipped down to about 17 to 20 minutes [from] loss of gas, loss of pressure," Spray explained. "Occasionally there would be complete breakdowns where someone would have to crawl into the tube with a length of rope, tie it around the carriages and draw them out. Also there was an ingress of water, and occasionally wet bags, and the last thing you wanted was damaged mail.”

    There was also political opposition to the LPDR from within the GPO, which had been forced into paying for this expensive experiment by Parliament. "They were probably looking for a reason for it not to work - that’s my suspicion," Spray said. Business dried up. In October 1874, the last train left for the GPO, and it closed for good after soaking up £200,000 in costs - that's £1.9m in today's money. "They really only had a decade of use."

    Perhaps the most surprising thing about the LPDR is how quickly it faded from memory. Transport blogger Ian Mansfield found an article from the Windsor Magazine in 1900 detailing the rediscovery of "London's lost tunnel", which is amazing for something that was barely a quarter-century old at the time.

    By the 1920s, when the Post Office realised it could use its old pneumatic railway tunnels for laying down telephone wire, it had the problem that it had no idea where the tunnels actually were - and, when it got down there, it found that sections had been destroyed by newer construction projects, or used by companies illegally for storing things like lumber. Gas had a tendency to build-up in the city's sewers at the time, causing pavement explosions, but in 1928 a gas build-up in the old LPDR tunnel near the junction of High Holborn and Kingsway caused one of the most serious of the era (known at the time as "Holborn Explosion").

    "It lifted the ground for hundreds of metres in each direction," said Spray. "It blew in shop fronts. There were flames that were 30 feet high in the air, that burned for hours on end. Below ground, where a lot of premises had cellar space, the walls were blown in a few inches." One man was killed, and thousands of pounds of damage was recorded.

    All we have left of the LPDR are two of the carriages from the small tunnel between Eversholt Street and Euston - that's a photo of them at the top of this piece. They were found in 1930 during construction work at Euston, and are currently kept at the British Postal Museum & Archive in Debden. The rest of the tunnels - those not destroyed by more modern construction works - are probably caved in, filled with rubble, or otherwise lost.

    Here's Rammell's 1958 map of where he thought the LPDR would eventually run:

    (Image: Royal Mail Group Ltd. 2013, courtesy BPMA)

    The hope was that key government buildings - like the Houses of Parliament, India House, Custom House, the Tower of London, the Royal Mint, and the Bank of England - would all be linked up. In the end, a traditional railway built in 1927 - the Mail Rail - pulled off much of what Rammell dreamed of, linking Paddington to Whitechapel via several of Royal Mail's key London offices.

    Mail Rail closed in 2003, becoming a thing of legend among the capital's urban exploration community (and only finally conquered by explorers in 2011). The BPMA is currently trying to raise funds to build a new Mail Rail museum and offer tours of certain closed sections, so unlike the LPDR this piece of London history hopefully shouldn't be lost to memory.

    Yet we should wonder about what might have been had the technology for the LPDR been a little bit more reliable, or its backers willing to lose a little bit more money. "This was ambition," said Spray. "This was 'railmania', a time when the supplements to things like the Times would carry a thousand proposals like this. People lost many millions of pounds. There is little surviving of this, little surviving headed notepaper, there’s no signage or anything like that. But there are the stories."

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    The Labour leader appears determined to avoid the challenge of fixing state services without spending more money on them.

    Even people who are obsessed with politics often find their eyes glazing over when the conversation turns to the detail of public sector reform. That is understandable given the technical complexity of some of the systems under discussion and the tendency for reformers to speak in think tank patois. But I’m sure Ed Miliband has a firm grasp of that rarefied idiom, so he must have other reasons for avoiding the subject.

    And avoid it he does. I have seen for myself the glazing-over of the opposition leader’s eyes and averting of the gaze into the middle distance when he is asked how Labour would meet the challenge of fixing state services without spending more money on them. Shadow cabinet ministers who want to have that conversation find it hard to get access to Miliband. Frontbenchers who have tried to push reform onto the agenda were notably overlooked or sidelined in October’s shadow cabinet reshuffle. Labour MPs understood the message clearly enough – the Labour leader will say something about public services when he is good and ready; there are no rewards for trying to accelerate the timetable.

    There are a various interpretations of this caution. Miliband’s aides are quick to point out that public sector reform is not a paramount concern among voters. It is a reasonable point. Labour should concentrate on winning support where it is available, not where policy wonks wish it would be. The counter-argument, with which I have now bored even myself through repetition in blogs, columns and private conversations, is that having an imaginative story to tell about public service reform is the way Labour can transmit a message about getting more for less with taxpayers’ money. That is a route to fiscal credibility, which is a paramount concern among many voters. Presenting creative solutions to the challenge of governing in austerity is likely to be a whole lot more persuasive than paper pledges to keep purse-strings tight, which the public discounts as just the kind of thing politicians feel they have to say.

    There are senior Labour figures who take that view, including Miliband advisors, but they seem to have difficulty getting the boss to focus on the matter for long. There are various explanations for this is the case.

    One view I have heard from the shadow cabinet is that Miliband doesn’t have any experience of working in or shadowing a big spending department. His time in government was spent as a Treasury advisor, a Cabinet Office minister and, finally, as Energy Secretary. In that latter role, he was often focused on climate change, working with people who believed in a cause in which he also believed. He hasn’t experienced first hand the frustration of the minister who has a plan for improving services – or tightening their budgets – and finds that the sector itself and that civil service are blocking change. He has never, for example, been forced to take sides when the interests of patients and doctors collide, or teaching unions and parents.

    A parallel factor is Miliband’s reluctance to get into policy debates that risk opening up old factional wounds from the Blair-Brown era. The Labour leader’s allies are fond of dismissing calls for a clear public sector reform agenda as part of "an old 90s frame" – which is code for saying that it is something Blairite ultras obsess about while everyone else on the left has moved on. That is partly fair. The idea that services can be improved by outsourcing key functions to the likes of Serco, Capita and G4S has been pretty well discredited. Likewise, there is mixed evidence at best when it comes to the belief that public sector efficiency and quality are raised when service users (parents and patients) choose between competing providers (schools and hospitals) in quasi-markets.

    But there aren’t that many people on the Labour side who seriously advocate an unalloyed choice-and-markets approach to reform. The conversation has, as Miliband’s friends declare, moved on. The problem is that any attempt to question the traditional model of state delivery or to criticise existing services risks being interpreted in some Labour circles as stealthy Blairism, which for its fiercest critics is hardly better than Conservatism.

    The fear among some Labour MPs is that they can’t even discuss ways to make the NHS more responsive to patients’ needs or ways to make sure standards in schools keep rising without being accused of back-door privatisation and pandering to a Tory agenda.

    The would-be reformers are currently pinning some hope on Jon Cruddas, who is leading Labour’s policy review for Miliband. No-one in the Labour party is ever going to accuse Cruddas of being a slavish devotee of the Cult of Tony, which gives him rare authority in the leader’s office to raise the matter of state reform. Indeed, the one time I have heard Miliband acknowledge the need for the party to have a public sector reform message he referred to the need to match people’s resentment of greedy, self-serving corporations with a need to address their frustrations at the hands of an "unresponsive state". That’s a Cruddas phrase.

    The essential division now seems to be between those, like Cruddas, who think the party needs a radical shift in the way Labour talks about the state and between those – chiefly, but not exclusively, allies of Ed Balls – who prefer to contain the debate in the more conventional parameters of how much is being spent in Whitehall and on what.

    This isn’t an argument about fiscal responsibility – the shadow Chancellor is more alert than anyone to the need to show that Labour can be prudent. At issue is a conceptual point about whether the future of public services lies in devolution of power and control over budgets to local level and even, ultimately, to service users themselves. The key Cruddasite ambition (outlined in this lecture from last December) is between services that work at the level of sustaining relationships between provider and citizen and those that deal in impersonal transactions.

    The reformers think Labour has an opportunity to launch a consumer-led revolution in public services, thereby renewing the social contract that serves as the left’s mandate to spend public money. The sceptics think that is all abstract wonk-speak that would amount, in practice, to chaos and loss of central control. Time spent at the Treasury teaches politicians to fear devolution of budgeting authority to anyone for fear that they mess it all up and leave the Chancellor to pick up the pieces.

    So where does Miliband sit in all of this? As with so many issues, no-one seems entirely sure where his instincts lie. It is clear enough that he doesn’t want to make this stuff the centre-piece of his offer in a general election. The question is whether he will support a reformist agenda enough for it to make its way into a Labour manifesto. One close observer of the opposition leader’s office says that when Miliband has one-on-one meetings with Cruddas he gets very enthusiastic about his ideas and the policy review – that the two men find much in common. But then the fire in Miliband’s eyes is quickly extinguished on contact with the cold reality of managing the different views around the shadow cabinet table and factional prejudices in the party.

    It isn’t even clear what the process is for debating ideas that come out of the policy review or turning them into a manifesto. There is a labyrinth of committees and sub-committees but none of these seems to have sufficient authority to say what will make it onto the party’s agenda for government. The shadow cabinet doesn’t make policy. Shadow cabinet ministers don’t always know whom to lobby in Miliband’s office to get their views heard. Reserves of trust between various senior figures in the leader’s office, the shadow treasury team, the election strategy team and the shadow cabinet all seem perilously low. There were hopes in the parliamentary party that, after the reshuffle, the Labour leader would feel more confident in his position – having stamped his personal authority on the front bench – and would allow a culture of open debate to flourish. At least where imagining the future of public services is concerned, there isn't much evidence of that happening.

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    Music journalist and author Ben Myers has been doing some soul searching on the day the former Lostprophets singer was sentenced to twenty-nine years imprisonment plus a further six on licence for crimes including several counts of sexually abusing children. Is the extreme image artists and journalists peddle at fault?

    The sentencing of former Lostprophets singer Ian Watkins today to twenty-nine years imprisonment plus a further six on licence for crimes including several counts of sexually abusing children hopefully brings an end to what some police officers have described as the most horrific case of child abuse they have worked on, and by far the most disturbing criminal trial associated with British rock music.

    For all it aesthetic flirtation with the dark side and its well-worn sex and drugs rhetoric, a case like this is rare – unprecedented, in fact - in the home-grown rock scene. I’d even argue that there is a playful innocence to many of its posturing bands. Far less sex, drugs and fisticuffs than I’ve seen at some British town centres taxi ranks at 2am. I know some lovely Satanists and have enjoyed many intellectually-invigorating encounters with men and women who scream about death for a living.

    Which is why many of my colleagues in the music business who have had close dealings with Watkins and his band have been doing some deep soul-searching. Are all of us who contribute to the myth-making business of music somehow indirectly culpable for creating a world in which simple musicians are deified?

    My own contact with Watkins has been limited to phone conversations and some innocuous online exchanges. But I have spent plenty of time close-up with some of rock’s bigger figures – Ozzy Osbourne, Lemmy, Jimmy Page, Mötley Crüe, Marilyn Manson, Slash and recent wayward artists such as Pete Doherty and the late Amy Winehouse - and am almost always struck by the same observation: these are ordinary people leading extraordinary lives. They are not demigods, and nor should they be portrayed as such. Treat them as normal and they will generally respond accordingly. Pander to their inflated egos and they might just take advantage.

    “Today mythical thinking has fallen into disrepute,” notes Karen Armstrong in A Short History Of Myth, and post-Watkins, there are certainly questions to be raised about why lifestyle excesses and preening, red-blooded rock stars have been historically celebrated in rock music. The big difference today is that these mythological creatures of yore are no longer absent, unobtainable figures. As Watkins has proven in the most diabolical ways imaginable, they are only ever a tweet or webcam away.

    When 47 year old Bill Wyman started dating 13 year old Mandy Smith there was tabloid outrage but little in the way of legal action. When Led Zeppelin took advantage of young fans they were not brought to account, but instead lionised. They were portrayed as heroes. Was Ian Watkins, the nadir of the indulged rock star, somehow “allowed” to hide in plain view, exploiting the susceptible without impunity? “There are so many rumours about me,” he said in an interview with Kerrang! in 2010. “The more shit that’s out there, the bigger the smokescreen and the harder it is to tell what’s actually true.”

    Academically gifted and believed to be a reader of de Sade, perhaps he saw himself as some sort of de Sade/Gilles de Rais figure pushing the limits of morality. The same interview was littered with prescient phrases such as “I’ve taken down all the rules in my life,” and “I’m not just talking about substances, I mean everything ... just opening up to being like ‘come what may’ is so liberating”. Hindsight now tells us that the previously drink and drug-free Watkins was not merely alluding to his recent dalliances with class A drugs.

    One unnamed girlfriend told Wales Online:“I’m not sure if he was born a paedophile. He said it got boring having 16-to-20 year-olds throwing themselves at him.” Another of his ex’s – and the main whistle-blower in his case - Joanne Mjadzelics has noted that there is an irrefutable difference between enjoying what she has called “adventurous sex” and becoming what the judge called “a determined and committed paedophile”. Taking to one paper Mjadzelics said “I’m absolutely sure Ian wouldn’t have stopped at abuse. He wanted to rape and kill children. He wanted to rape newborns.”

    Statements such as these suggest that though Watkins’ occupation facilitated the abuse - increased access meant a swifter escalation in severity - he may have been an abuser anyway. Perhaps rock music is no more to blame than drugs, social networking or the writings of de Sade, but yet simply dismissing Watkins as evil however is doing criminology and psycho-analysis a disservice.

    One suspects ego, money, greed, access to extreme pornography, a talent for manipulation and coercion, and a narcissistic and/or  psychopathic personality all played some part in Watkins committing these heinous crimes. 

    The rest perhaps only he could explain. Certainly today is rock music’s darkest day.

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    By snubbing the Sochi Games himself and picking tennis star and lesbian icon Billie Jean King to represent him, Barack Obama is effectively waving a rainbow flag in Putin's face. Three cheers for the “we’re here, we’re queer”-ness of the US Olympic delegation.

    “I’m not coming, have some lesbians instead.”

    That may not be the exact wording of Obama’s RSVP to next year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. But in picking tennis star and lesbian icon, Billie Jean King, along with gay hockey player Caitlin Cahow as his delegates, the US President certainly seems to be giving homophobe extraordinaire, Vladimir Putin, a star spangled middle finger.

    Earlier this year, the Kremlin implemented a noisome little bundle of new anti-gay legislation. Russia’s recent “gay propaganda” law, strikingly similar to the Thatcher government’s Section 28, criminalises conveying homosexuality to children as anything other than undesirable and unnatural. Since this and other homophobic laws were enacted, LGBT rights organisations worldwide have been piling pressure on the International Olympic Committee to pull the winter games out of Sochi. While the IOC has failed to take any protest action, the US government has stepped in by stepping out.

    Perhaps Obama is still sore over Russia granting asylum to Edward Snowden, or perhaps he finds skiing duller than a three day filibuster on federal trade laws. Whatever the reasoning is behind the President’s Sochi snub, it’s a bold move - especially for a leader who's so often accused of being ineffectual. It’s also unlikely that he’s including two lesbians in the US delegation by pure accident. For the first time in fourteen years, the US won’t be sending its President, or anyone vaguely presidential (the Veep, for instance) to an Olympic games. Either US-Russia relations are meandering back towards Cold War levels of intimacy, or Obama is a giant rainbow flag-waver.

    Billie Jean King has said that she hopes the Russia-hosted games will be a “watershed moment for the universal acceptance of all people”. Putin has pledged that, throughout the games, no athletes or visitors will be prosecuted for small acts of protest, like wearing rainbow badges. Yet the fact remains that Russia has effectively criminalised homosexuality. In making one of the world’s most famous lesbians a US representative in legally homophobic country, Obama is breaking the relative silence of world leaders when it comes to condemning Russia’s new legislation. The “we’re here, we’re queer”-ness of the US Olympic delegation may not be groundbreaking, but it certainly draws attention to where it’s needed. Post-Cold War, some of America’s intercontinental ballistic missiles are lesbian-shaped.



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    The ten must-read comment pieces from this morning's papers.

    1. Anachronistic and iniquitous, grammar schools are a blot on the British education system (Independent)

    Where selection remains, it continues to be largely the preserve of the privileged, writes Owen Jones.

    2. IDS isn’t ending social security. He’s saving it (Times)

    Critics of welfare reform are ignoring the evidence that today’s system is not just a mess but is immoral, says Tim Montgomerie. 

    3. Syria: how many more times can the Foreign Office get it so wrong? (Daily Telegraph)

    A total misreading of the situation in Syria is just the latest example of Whitehall blundering, says Peter Oborne. 

    4. Consumption is not just for Christmas (Financial Times)

    It is deeply patronising to fret that the little people are buying too much for their own good, writes Chris Giles. 

    5. We can't rely on Angela Merkel to sort out Europe's problems (Guardian)

    David Cameron hopes the German chancellor will help him keep Britain in the EU, but she's focused on her own country, writes Martin Kettle. 

    6. If you’re Biggs, you believe that you’re big (Times)

    From train robbers to slave owners, people tend to convince themselves that they’re acting morally, writes David Aaronovitch. 

    7. Six events that shook Asia (Financial Times)

    As one nation strives to revive its economy, others struggle with poverty and calamity, writes David Pilling. 

    8. Mission accomplished? Afghanistan is a calamity and our leaders must be held to account (Guardian)

    British troops haven't accomplished a single one of their missions in Afghanistan, says Seumas Milne. Like Iraq and Libya, it's a disaster.

    9. This government is a hotbed of cold feet (Daily Telegraph)

    Every time ministers funk or farm out difficult decisions, they lose more authority, says Sue Cameron.

    10. The 'right school'? No, parents staying together is the best way to help children (Guardian)

    Children with a stable home life do better at school. Focus less on catchment areas and more on relationship counselling, writes Joanna Moorhead. 

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    So long as Miliband retains the support of around 20% of 2010 Lib Dem voters, the Tories have no hope of victory.

    For the fourth Christmas in a row, Labour looks set to end the year ahead in the polls. With some exceptions, those commentators who dismissed Ed Miliband as "unelectable" in 2010 have now conceded they were wrong to do so. Labour is no longer achieving the double-digit poll leads it enjoyed last year but its lead remains stubborn enough for it to be confident of at least emerging as the single largest party in 2015.

    The central point in Labour's favour, as throughout this parliament, remains the large number of defectors from the Lib Dems. The party still reliably enjoys the support of nearly a quarter of 2010 Lib Dems voters, a swing greater than the cumulative increase in the Conservative vote between 1997 and 2010. It is largely for this reason that while Labour's lead has varied significantly in recent months (largely dependent on UKIP's level of support), its vote share has remained steady at 38-41% (within the margin of error), putting Miliband on course for victory. 

    Aware that they are unlikely to poll above their 2010 share of 37% (GB figure), the Tories reportedly hope and believe that they can cap Labour's vote at 32%. But their fate remains largely out of their hands. Unlike previous parliaments, this one has seen remarkably little switching between the two main parties. As a result, there is little potential for the Tories to reduce Labour's support by winning over Conservative defectors. Instead, their chances of victory are dependent on a significant Lib Dem recovery. Unfortunately for Cameron, there is little prospect of this. As Lord Ashcroft's recent study of 2010 Lib Dem supporters noted, those who have defected to Labour are the least likely to return to the fold, with 78% saying they are certain how they will vote, compared to 69% of those who say they would Conservative, 62% of those who say they would vote UKIP and 42% of those who would vote Green. 

    While existing Lib Dem MPs, many of whom enjoy large local followings, are likely to benefit from an incumbency effect, it is the Tories, not Labour, who will suffer as a result; Cameron's party is in second place in 38 of the Lib Dems' 57 seats. Elsewhere, support for Clegg's party is in freefall - and the Tories stand to lose dozens of seats; there are 37 Conservative-Labour marginals where the third place Lib Dem vote is more than twice the margin of victory.

    The Tories retain an unerring confidence that, confronted by the prospect of Miliband entering Downing Street, voters will recoil from Labour. By framing the election as a presidential contest – do you want Cameron or Miliband as your prime minister? – they believe they can overturn Labour’s lead (Cameron leads Miliband as people's preferred PM by 35-20 in today's YouGov poll). But this assumption is based more on faith than evidence. History shows that a well-liked (or, more accurately, less disliked) leader is no guarantee of electoral success. In the final poll before the 1979 election, Jim Callaghan enjoyed a 19-point lead over Margaret Thatcher as "the best prime minister" but the Tories still won a majority of 44 seats. Similarly, in the 1970 election, Harold Wilson's 23-point lead over Ted Heath failed to prevent Labour suffering a decisive defeat.

    Nor is economic recovery, however strong, likely to be enough to save the Tories. In large parts of the country, they simply remain too toxic for voters to lend them the support they need to beat Labour. As a recent YouGov poll found, 33% of the electorate would "never vote" Conservative, compared to 24% for Labour. Blue collar modernisers such as Robert Halfon and Guy Opperman understand what the Tories need to do to shed their reputation as the party of the rich. But cleansing the Conservative brand, as Cameron failed to do, will be the work of a decade, not 18 months. For the Tories, the really hard work is likely to begin after 7 May 2015. 

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    Some Liberal MPs of 1909 were more adventurous than others. Charles Nicholson, MP for Doncaster, was the only parliamentary member of the Alpine Club, formed in 1857 to promote mountaineering in that region. Many yachting clubs were represented, including the Royal Yacht Squadron, whose members included Godfrey Baring, MP for Isle of Wight (1906-10), the Royal Northern and Clyde and Royal Anglesey. Edwin Montagu, MP for Chesterton (1906-18), was the only Liberal MP to list his membership of the British Ornithologists’ Union. There were also echoes of the past. Thomas Lough represented the spirit of Irish Liberalism with his solo membership of St Stephen’s Green Club in Dublin. No Liberals represented Irish seats at this date; Lough was MP for Islington West (1892-1918).

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    By offering the vote to 16 and 17 year olds at school, in college or in workplaces we can intertwine civic duty with our education system.

    The UK is facing a democratic deficit of startling proportions. Electoral turnout in the UK has been on a downward trend since 1950, when 84 per cent of the population turned out to vote. It was just 65 per cent in the last general election. Membership of our political parties has fallen – the Conservative Party has gone from being 3 million strong in 1950 to having just 100,000 members today. Only 44 per cent of those aged 18-24 voted in the 2010 general election and a recent survey found that only a third of 16-24 year olds say they have an interest in politics.

    The statistics tell a depressing story of decline in trust in party politics and its ability to effect change. It was an issue that Russell Brand spoke about earlier this year. Whilst I disagree strongly with the content of his comments, Brand touched upon a common view when he lashed out at the political system. He represented an entrenched feeling that people deserve and expect more.

    It would be easy to retreat from this problem, especially in the midst of the significant economic and policy challenges we face. One Nation Labour must take a different approach and open up our democracy to bring about change. It is not enough to do nothing and hope the tide changes. It is essential that we seek to explore new ways of achieving democratic renewal and political reform.

    At the Labour conference, Ed Miliband set out one of the ways in which we will seek to change the current situation. Introducing votes at 16 is a bold and radical proposal that, if implemented with care, has the potential to energise a new generation of politically active and engaged citizens. Votes at 16 needs to go hand-in-hand with wider youth engagement and a renewed commitment to Citizenship Education.

    Too often we deplore the fact that a majority of young people didn’t vote in the election, but then decide to do nothing about it. Youth is not automatically linked to apathy, and the reasons behind low turnout are multi-faceted and complicated. In my experience, young people today are often highly political but understandably wary of formal party politics. Many don’t feel politicians are listening to their concerns or talking about their aspirations. Opening up our democratic system to younger people is an important way in which we can solve this problem. Rather than turn our back, we must instead seek to improve the current democratic malaise by empowering young people.

    The Education Participation Age is rising to 18. By offering the vote to 16 and 17 year olds at school, in college or in workplaces we can intertwine civic duty with our education system. Conferring a democratic responsibility and opportunity on people still in compulsory education offers practical benefits. On polling days, schools and colleges could having polling stations for students, making it more likely for this group to take advantage. Vote once and you are more likely to vote again. It is not something they think about every day, or spend their evenings and weekends campaigning about, but (even with the decline in turnout) for most people voting is a habit.

    Over time, voting could become a rite of passage in our education system, like taking exams. This will require a massive strengthening of citizenship education. The last Labour government made great strides with its introduction of citizenship as a subject in secondary school. Citizenship education should sit at the core of our curriculum, giving young people an understanding, deeper knowledge and interest in civic issues. Votes at 16 would place renewed emphasis on this area for our schools.

    In 2014, the issue will step up and I look forward to working with Young Labour, MPs and PPCs across the country in engaging with young people and campaigning for change. Last month, I attended a meeting at Furness Sixth Form College arranged by local Labour MP John Woodcock on this issue. Votes at 16 has been voted a priority campaign by the Youth Parliament, and I will be supporting them going forward and in Scotland, 16-18 year olds will be able to vote in the referendum in September. I want to meet with young people up and down the country who are in interested in politics, and begin to explore their issues and areas of concern and see what policy priorities they may have. It is time their voice was heard by the whole of Westminster. 

    Stephen Twigg is shadow minister for constitutional reform and MP for Liverpool West Derby

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    Since Peter O'Toole died on 14 December there has been an outpouring of opinion and anecdote - but the best way to appreciate him as an actor, is to watch how he transformed himself over the years.

    Peter O’Toole may have changed physically from one end of his career to the other—from the magnetic, eroticised nobility he exuded in his fourth film, Lawrence of Arabia, in 1964, to the rattled, mischievous belligerence of his work in Venus during the last decade. But one element that never altered or diminished was his strange, quivering authority, his skill for displaying at once absolute certainty and a glowing inner vulnerability.

    You can see it right up to the end. At the age of 76, he made Dean Spanley shortly after failing to win the Congratulations For Not Dying Yet award for Venus at the 2007 Oscars. In that delightful, spiritual comedy he wears a look of livid, bug-eyed amusement, and his silver locks seem metallic against his puce skin. Each time he is called upon to express another curdled sentiment (such as: “A woman with a vote is like a cow with a gun—contrary to nature”), he appears surprised by what just came out of his mouth, as if he were a conduit for someone else’s invective.

    Much has been said and written about him since his death at the weekend aged 81 but today let’s just look at him, and listen to that resonant timbre. I don’t pretend that this brief list of my favourite performances by O’Toole is in any way comprehensive—it doesn’t include The Lion in Winter (which I haven’t seen) or Goodbye Mr Chips (which I have: a fine performance in a poor film). It should, though, give a taste of his consistency and dynamism, even in the case of the fifth entry, where he makes his presence strongly felt despite not appearing on screen.

    1. Lawrence of Arabia (1962) 

    There couldn’t really be another movie at the top of this list. One of the most assured and spellbinding performances in all cinema: O’Toole’s eyes are so alluringly blue that you feel you could dive right through the screen and into those azure peepers, leaving behind only a sand-splash.

    2. The Stunt Man (1980)

    This scabrous Hollywood thriller-cum-satire is little-seen these days but much-admired. O’Toole rules the film as the tyrannical director for whom no price is too high when it comes to getting the best take in the can.

    3. My Favourite Year (1982)

    As with his performance on stage in Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell, O’Toole’s portrayal of a boozy screen legend in this very simple but winning comedy blurred in the public consciousness with his off-screen self.

    4. Dean Spanley (2008)

    Gruff, objectionable—and utterly charming. Late-period O’Toole at his best.

    5. Ratatouille (2005)

    “Not everyone can be a great artist. But great art can come from anywhere.” As Anton Ego, the sinister, poker-thin restaurant critic who appears to have stepped out of the pages of Poe, O’Toole was heard and not seen. Yet he was no less vivid than in any of his physical performances. Ego’s humane awakening in the final scenes is truly moving: a lesson to critics, and other species, everywhere.

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    The New Statesman remembers South Africa’s great leader.

    Nelson Mandela’s birth name was Rolihlahla, a Xhosa word that translates as “troublemaker”. By the time he first came to the attention of the New Statesman in 1960, he had already made plenty – having decided, as he wrote in his autobiography, that the African National Congress “had no alternative to armed and violent resistance” in the face of apartheid.

    He was first arrested in 1956, and in 1964 he was sentenced to life imprisonment and despatched to Robben Island, where he remained for 18 years. Like many others on the left around the world, the New Statesman took up his cause in the 1980s. The paper secured an interview with him after his release, at a crucial point in the negotiations for South Africa’s first multiracial elections.

    Throughout this time, even as Mandela lost confidence in the National Party leader F W de Klerk and saw one of his principal lieutenants, Chris Hani, assassinated by a far-right gunman aided by a white politician, he managed to keep his country from sliding into civil war. And as Sarah Baxter notes, even as the ANC took power in 1994 he could not rest: the nation still needed its uniting figure while the party, harassed and outlawed for so long, adjusted to the new challenges of government. Mandela served just one term as president of South Africa but extended his bravery into retirement, speaking out against the 2003 invasion of Iraq and encouraging the United Nations to intervene in the civil war between Hutus and Tutsis in Burundi. In 2005 he showed a different kind of courage, announcing that his son Makgatho had died of an Aids-related illness, at a time when Aids was hugely stigmatised and was claiming increasing numbers of lives in South Africa.

    In April 1964, during the Rivonia trial, he said: “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to see realised. But ... if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

    Today, although South Africa still struggles with equality, we know that Mandela did more than anyone to bring it closer to his ideal. The boy given a new name at school so that his English-speaking teachers wouldn’t have to grapple with Xhosa pronunciation became the man who damaged his eyesight breaking rocks on Robben Island, and then Madiba, the genial statesman in the print shirt. Now that he is gone, we can appreciate how much he lived to see.

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    In this despatch from 15 April 1994, Sarah Baxter witnesses the moment Mandela held together a South Africa on the verge of falling apart.

    “Today, we come to pay homage to one of South Africa’s greatest sons. He paid the supreme sacrifice so that we could be free. The greatest monument we can build in his honour is to elect a democratic government on 27 April.”

    Nelson Mandela, Soweto, on 10 April 1994, the anniversary of Chris Hani’s assassination

    When Chris Hani was gunned down outside his home in a Johannesburg suburb last year, there was no date for the South African elections. The constitutional talks dragged on, while the township violence continued to claim lives. Hani, the former chief of staff of Umkhonto we Sizwe and leader of the South African Communist Party, used all his influence with young militants to persuade them to support a negotiated settlement. He was, as legend has it, a “soldier for peace”.

    His assassination, planned by the right-winger Clive Derby-Lewis, and carried out by the Polish immigrant Janusz Walus, brought the political process to a crossroads. To this day, no one is certain whether there were other unseen hands behind his destruction. But to call off the talks would have unleashed chaos. Six weeks later, a date for the elections was set. Since then, Hani has assumed the role of saint and martyr.

    Last weekend, thousands gathered at Orlando Stadium, many sporting T-shirts bearing the message: “He lived and died for me.” The religious imagery was deliberate. The National Party has made much of the African National Congress’s alliance with the “godless” communists. “Comrade Hani may well have become a Catholic priest, but because he grew up under the apartheid regime, his life took a different course,” said his successor as leader of the SACP, Charles Nqakula. Hani is still needed.

    The township militants have not given up their arms. They streamed into the stadium, some behind the banners of the SACP, bearing spears, knives, two-foot-long nails, even golf clubs – any traditional weapon they could lay their hands on. A few had guns stuffed into their belts. They spoke excitedly of Inkatha men heading towards the stadium. That would have been a suicidal mission.

    But on the way back from the rally, one person was killed and four people injured as their bus travelled past an Inkatha hostel. At the gates to the stadium, ANC security guards dutifully frisked women for weapons, while the armed men forged past them. They stormed round the circuit in gangs, accompanied by cheers and cries of apprehension from the crowd.

    At last, Nelson Mandela’s grey Mercedes was spotted. Cheering broke out. “Nelson! Nelson! Nelson!” He descended from the car, jostled on all sides by journalists and bodyguards, and walked slowly round the stadium, raising his fist in salute to the crowd and smiling broadly.

    On reaching the podium, he said loudly and clearly: “Chris Hani was a man who died preaching peace. On this day, all South Afri­cans should commit themselves to reconciliation. It is time that each one of us assumed responsibility for putting an end to crime and violence.” He was speaking to everyone, including white South Africans.

    But behind the high walls guarding their homes, the whites are growing nervous. The planes entering the country are half-empty. The planes leaving are full. Thousands have joined the “chicken run” to Zimbabwe, Britain and other countries. Theirs is not a permanent exodus. They are spending a month abroad, while they gauge the situation back home.

    Nobody knows what is going to happen “after the election” – the most overused phrase at the moment. People are stockpiling tinned food, candles and gas cylinders “just in case”. Even white liberals, who are determined to vote ANC, confess to feeling apprehensive. When the rules governing “petty apartheid” were abandoned, wealth remained the great divider.

    But now the country is truly in transition. Former Umkhonto we Sizwe guerrillas are in the process of joining the South African Defence Force. New black presenters are appearing on state-sponsored TV. Soon, the changes will reach everyone’s workplace. The ANC has promised “affirmative action”. Does that mean there will be new colleagues, new bosses and new work priorities? Of course, they support the principle, but what about the practice? Mandela has done his utmost to soothe people’s fears.

    At Orlando Stadium, he praised the work of the security forces and said they deserved “our full confidence and support”. He gave an account of his visit to Natal a few days earlier, after a state of emergency had been imposed there with his agreement. Eight youths, who had been carrying AK-47s and revolvers, came to him and complained: “‘You wanted a state of emergency and now they have arrested us and taken away our guns.’ I said: ‘No, you must expect the South African police and the South African Defence Force to be even-handed. Don’t expect to be exempted. We want peace.’”

    But it is not so much civil war, as change itself that is feared. The National Party has staged a remarkable comeback by insisting that only it can be trusted with the transition to a truly multi-racial society. The attempt has been brazen. F W de Klerk has proclaimed: “I, not the ANC, liberated this country from apartheid.”

    The ANC is still on course for an over-whelming victory. The latest poll puts its support at 62 per cent. But the NP’s share of the poll has risen 6 points in recent months, mainly at the ANC’s expense. In the short term, its aim is to deprive the ANC of the two-thirds majority needed to draw up a new constitution for the country.

    Under the interim constitution, de Klerk is certain to be one of two vice-presidents under Mandela’s leadership, and the NP has argued: “No partnership works if one of the parties is too large and the other too small.” Perhaps the best sign that de Klerk trusts the ANC to govern the country democratically is that he is already positioning himself for the election after next. He wants the NP to be the multi-racial right-wing party of the future, just as the ANC will be the multi-racial party of the left.

    It is a shrewd gambit. The NP can never again win with the support of whites alone. In any case, the white vote has splintered, with up to one-third of Afrikaners supporting far-right demands for an independent volkstaat. Support for General Constand Viljoen’s Freedom Front has risen to 5 per cent – enough to secure him a possible seat in South Africa’s transitional cabinet. De Klerk has had to forage elsewhere for votes among conservative blacks and the coloured and Indian communities, who are afraid of black majority rule.

    Mandela has been making light of the NP’s renaissance. The crowd at Orlando Stadium laughed delightedly when he said: “We are dealing with a mouse. The National Party is a mouse and they think they can fight an elephant. We, the African National Congress, are the elephant. If a mouse overfeeds itself, it will gain weight, but it is still a mouse.” The ANC can count on the support of the vast majority of black people. But in the Western Cape, the elephant is growing afraid of the mouse. In this bastion of the coloured community, which for years enjoyed preferential labour over black people, the NP is marginally ahead of the ANC. De Klerk’s popularity rating is 62 per cent; Mandela’s is 17 per cent. Mandela’s car was stoned recently on the way to a meeting by the same young gangs who would once have thrown rocks at the security forces.

    It is in the Cape that the NP’s propaganda has been crudest. It has not only played the traditional swartz gefaar (fear of blacks) card, but has also adapted the US Republicans’ “Willie Horton” campaign tactics. An advertisement shows the face of a young black woman next to the words: “Could you look her in the eye and tell her you’re giving her rapist the vote?”

    The Indian community has also been reconsidering its previous staunch support for the ANC. It, too, has been using an elephant metaphor. The saying goes: “When two elephants fight, the grass gets trampled.” They are particularly fearful of being squeezed between Inkatha and the ANC in Natal, where they settled in great numbers generations ago. One in four Indians may not vote at all.

    The ANC has been incredulous at the NP’s bid for support. “After 46 years of NP rule, these people want you to vote for them,” said one of their posters in astonishment. By its own admission, the NP has only just realised the error of its ways and refashioned itself as a “new” multi-racial party, while the ANC has been multi-racial since its foundation in 1912.

    But the most galling of all is the NP’s pose as the party of peace and stability, when it is suspected of complicity with the “Third Force”, the shadowy security apparatus that has been accused by the Goldstone Com­mission of trying to disrupt the election. In Orlando Stadium, Mandela protested that de Klerk was party to atrocities committed by the Third Force “by omission and conni­vance”, but the difficulty has been proving links between the two.

    The hand of the Third Force is seen everywhere. Where there are killings, there are rumours of white men in balaclavas either directing or participating in operations. Inkatha is increasingly regarded as an instrument of the Third Force. Even whites, who traditionally preferred Inkatha, with its respect for “cultural differences”, to the “communist” ANC, are beginning to worry that if civil war comes, it will be thanks to Chief Buthelezi’s warriors.

    The pity is that, outside KwaZulu and a few Inkatha strongholds, the strategy of disruption has failed. The elections are expected to be free and fair for the great majority of South Africans. The homelands, including Bophuthatswana, have been brought into the fold. The South African far right is participating in the elections in the form of Viljoen’s Freedom Front. The date fixed after Chris Hani’s assassination has held fast.

    Mandela has talked to every South African leader bar the neo-fascist Eugene Terre’-Blanche in his bid to ensure that the voting goes smoothly. He personally embodies forbearance and tolerance. But the ANC has spent years planning to “take power”. It is the language that Hani and every ANC leader was schooled in. For most South Africans, those words have a happy ring. For a minority, they inspire suspicion and fear. Hani’s death symbolised the hope to come and the conflict accompanying it. There has been no resolution yet, but hope remains strong.

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    The media is fascinated with the UK's two oldest universities and the demographics of its students, without acknowledging the randomness of its interview process.

    Every year, the British media will bang out the same predictable stories about the Oxbridge entry process. In December they’ll write about crazy interview techniques; in August, they’ll debate the existence of systemic bias towards posh people. These stories have been written since time immemorial, as regular a feature of the British newspaper diet as Diana conspiracy theories and Winterval.

    You don't get these kind of stories about Exeter or LSE, do you? The obsession with Oxbridge is entirely unique. It'd be nice to think this scrutiny reflects the fact Oxford and Cambridge graduates are more likely to end up with their hands on the levers of power in this country, but I suspect the truth is simpler: the media is disproportionately fascinated by Oxbridge entry largely because it’s disproportionately populated by Oxbridge graduates.

    I am, I’m afraid, one of them, so what follows is probably just as self-indulgent as everything I was just complaining about. But I’m going to say it anyway because, in all the acres of newsprint about the class system and questions like "why is a banana", there's one substantial point that no one ever seems to mention: quite how much of the entry process is down to luck.

    This is a strong claim, so will take some unpacking, but the reasons why mostly come down to two things. One is the collegiate system; the other is the interview process.

    Consider. When you apply to Oxbridge, you generally apply to take a specific course at a specific college. Some courses receive lots and lots of applications; others, relatively few. Now, you can make an open application, and let a computer choose your college for you instead, which evens out the odds slightly; and anyway, the universities maintain it’s not possible to use this information to game the system.

    But none of this changes the fact that some courses are simply more competitive than others: the playing field is not entirely level. If you’re good, but your chosen college doesn’t have a place for you, they’ll stick you in the “pool”, and if you’re lucky you might be plucked out to plug a gap at another college. Then again, if the right person doesn’t look at your paperwork, you might not. Bad luck.

    The other reason Oxbridge entry can be ever so slightly arbitrary is that admissions are largely based on interview – and, as anyone who’s ever been interviewed for anything can attest, interviews are an art, not a science. Great candidates will be petrified and under-perform; lesser ones may have a natural confidence that sees them through. And anyway, how you do will depend to an extent on the rapport you have with your interviewer. One candidate may click with the tutor and shine; another doesn’t and won’t. If they’d applied to the college next door, it might well have been the other way around.

    The result of all this is that those who are accepted will, to some extent, be those for whom the fates aligned. A few kids are so bright they’re all but bound to get in; a few won’t be academically strong enough, and won’t.

    But in between, there's a vast swathe of candidates that could go either way. Maybe they performed well on the day. Maybe they were up against relatively weak competition. Maybe they got an interviewer who just happened to like them, and decided that this was a person they'd like to have around for the next three years. Any of these things might well have gone against them.

    None of this is “unfair”, exactly. Oxbridge does remain disproportionately populated by the bourgeois and well-heeled, but whether this is the fault of the admissions process or some external factor is very far from clear. And, despite the horror stories, relatively few admissions tutors go out of their way to terrify nerve-wracked 17 year olds. The most detailed look at the application process from the inside is probably this excellent piece from the Guardian, which shows the admissions tutors taking contextual information like social background and school quality into account, and all but agonising over which candidates to take.

    But it also shows them making subjective judgements about how to balance grades, confidence and background, and taking split second decisions about marginal candidates that it’s easy to imagine going the other way. And these, remember, are decisions that are going to have a massive impact on the opportunities open to those kids when they graduate. An Oxbridge degree isn’t an automatic ticket to fame and fortune (believe me, I know). But it still opens doors that many other degrees, with similar grade requirements and at excellent universities, just don’t.

    Maybe, under the circumstances, it shouldn’t.

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    The Vampyre Family: Passion, Envy and the Curse of Byron 
    Andrew McConnell Stott
    Canongate, 464pp, £25

    This book begins in motion, as if to dramatise the restlessness that characterises all of its main characters. Lord Byron, best-selling author of his age, is leaving England for exile, first in Switzerland, later in Italy. Percy Bysshe Shelley is leaving too, with his mistress, Mary Godwin, and her stepsister Claire Clairmont. We head with them, first of all, for the shores of Lake Geneva (where Frankenstein will be hatched) and eventually for Italy. Also in the company is the 20-year-old John Polidori, Byron’s personal physician, treated with varying degrees of scorn by his employer, who dubbed him “Pollydolly”.

    There have been thorough biographies of all the protagonists and most of their letters and journals have been published. What can be new? Only the narrative trick of seeing things from the camp follower’s point of view. As the relationship between Shelley and Godwin deepens, we are invited to feel Clairmont’s ennui as she has to sit and listen to them calling each other “Pecksie” and “Elfin Knight”.

    When Polidori leaves the Villa Diodati and travels on foot across the Alps to Italy, we travel with him and are only allowed to meet Byron again when Polidori does. Stott writes with a brio and wit that make every page a pleasure, yet he has nothing new to tell us. The mysteries that previous biographers have failed to solve – notably whether there was a sexual relationship between Clairmont and Shelley – remain resistant.

    His narrative logic makes the gravitational pull of Byron and Shelley seem mysterious. Some of their poetry is mentioned en passant but we are offered hardly any reason to share the powerful feelings of their admirers. It was Byron’s poetry, after all, that persuaded the teenage Clairmont that she had to give herself to him, body and soul. Here, Byron is impossibly conceited and selfish; Shelley is a dreamer with ideological fixations, who hardly notices the casualties around him. Arguably, while less vampiric than his lordly friend, Shelley made as many victims, including his rejected wife, Harriet, and Mary’s half-sister, Fanny, who both committed suicide within a month of each other in 1816.

    Yet it is Byron who is to be the demon, his intimacy a “curse”. The book’s title recalls Byron’s own poetic self-image – rendered in darkly self-referential works like Cain or Manfred – as a fallen angel, destined to live beyond normal moral boundaries. The vampire metaphor was on everyone’s mind. Shelley’s deserted wife, Harriet, told a friend that the man she had once loved was dead and had become “a vampire”. Stott takes his title from a hostile article in Blackwood’s Magazine that ridiculed Polidori as a member of the “Vampyre family”.

    Polidori himself achieved a posthumous place in literary history as the author of the first proper vampire novel. He returned to England determined to become a writer. He tried reviewing, play-writing and poetry. But he was knocked backwards in April 1819 when his story “The Vampyre”, inspired by those hours at Diodati, was published in a London magazine as “A Tale by Lord Byron”. Stott is convinced that the tale dramatises Byron’s influence on Polidori: it features a pale, alluring nobleman called Lord Ruthven (the name given to Byron in a roman à clef by his former lover Lady Caroline Lamb). He is an unkillable blood-sucker, whose hunting ground is London high society, and he especially likes to prey on women.

    The protagonist of the story, Aubrey, is befriended by the vampire and feels loyal to him, even though he will be destroyed by this friendship. The story’s misattribution seems to have been the responsibility of the unscrupulous publisher Henry Colburn, who knew the selling power of Byron’s name. Soon “The Vampyre” was a hit on the London stage but Polidori got not a penny for it.

    Overwhelmed by gambling losses and literary failure, he killed himself by drinking a solution of prussic acid. Soon afterwards, Claire Clairmont learned of the death of Allegra, her child by Byron, who had insisted on taking over her care. Immured in an Italian convent, from which Shelley declined to rescue her, the five-year old died of typhus. Clairmont lived on into her 80s, tormented by this loss. Her life after the early deaths of Shelley and Byron is compacted into an epilogue. After a peripatetic existence, often working as a governess, she was rescued when she eventually received money left to her by Shelley in his will and she lived out her days in Florence.

    Stott reproduces the recollection she wrote shortly before her death: “Under the influence of free Love, Lord B— became a human tyger”. Stott agrees, adding the moral that proximity to fame brought only misery to Byron’s admirers. The lesson would please the many Regency moralists who inveighed against those satanic Romantics. 

    John Mullan is head of English at University College London and author of “What Matters in Jane Austen?” (Bloomsbury, £8.99)

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