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    The New Statesman's culture editor takes a look forward at the books set to dominate the year.

    On the morning of 28 June 1914 the Yugoslav nationalist Gavrilo Princip fired two shots from his Fabrique Nationale semi-automatic pistol. One of them killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. A month later, the world was at war – a hundred years later, we are still living in its shadow. The publishing industry began its centenary activities early, with histories by Margaret McMillan, Jeremy Paxman and Max Hastings last year. In 2014 the flood of doorstop books continues. Historians are tackling the prelude – in That Fateful Year: England 1914 by Mark Bostridge (Viking, January) – and the epilogue, in The Deluge: the Great War and the Remaking of Global Order (1916-1931) by Adam Tooze (Allen Lane, May).

    Contemporary literary responses are collected in No Man’s Land: Writings from the World at War (Serpent’s Tale, January), while The Hundred Years’ War: Modern War Poems (Bloodaxe, April), edited by Neil Astley, makes the connection to current conflicts and the nebulous war on terror. Why are we still so obsessed with the Great War, and so anxious about our commemorations? Frank Furedi tackles this head-on in First World War: Still No End in Sight (Bloomsbury/Continuum, January), arguing that those four years of horror bled into a century of entrenched culture wars.

    Naomi Klein would argue that there are greater disasters on the horizon. Her The Message (Allen Lane, September) is a call to arms in the face of catastrophic climate change. In Russell Brand’s issue of the New Statesman last year Klein advocated direct action, reasoning that “It’s not a revolution, but it’s a start. And it might just buy us enough time to figure out a way to live on this planet that is distinctly less fucked.”

    We are not short of impending crises. In On Liberty (Allen Lane, September), Shami Chakrabati shows that our democratic institutions are under just as much threat as our environment. Danny Dorling’s All That is Solid (Allen Lane, February) examines the UK’s disastrous relationship with housing. Our right to shelter is as fragile as our right to privacy, a theme picked up in two books on last year’s NSA scandal – The Snowden Files: The True Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man by Luke Harding (Guardian Faber, April) and No Place to Hide by Snowden’s contact Glenn Greenwald (Hamish Hamilton, May) – and an account of the News International saga, the rather grandiosely titled Hack Attack: the Inside Story of How One Journalist Exposed the World’s Most Powerful Media Mogul by Nick Davies (Chatto & Windus, April). Our right to protest? Equally at risk, as the Kremlin’s treatment of the feminist punk band Pussy Riot showed: Words Will Break Cement: the Passion of Pussy Riot by Marsha Gessen (Granta, February) tells their story.

    Rhiannon Cosslett and Holly Baxter, co-founders of the Vagenda blog and authors of The V Spot on, would approve: their first book, The Vagenda (Square Peg, May) shows readers how to tackle insidious media misogyny through “articulate activism”. Read it alongside Laura Bates’s shocking catalogue of true stories in Everyday Sexism (Simon & Schuster, May) and Laurie Penny’s essays on gender, Unspeakable Things (Bloomsbury, July).

    On 18 September, a referendum will ask “Should Scotland be an independent country?” The historian Linda Colley does some groundwork with an examination of what has held the UK together – and what is driving it apart – in Acts of Union and Disunion (Profile Books, January) and the Scottish novelist Alasdair Gray presents his vision of an independent Scotland in Independence (Canongate, June).

    A contender for “big idea of the year” is Sapiens by Yuval Harari (Harvill Secker, September 4), a number one bestseller in Israel, and nothing less than a 360-degree history of humankind and a prophecy about our future: its publisher claims it will change “the way we view our world”. Michael Lewis has changed the way we view the financial world in books such as Moneyball, The Big Short and Liar’s Poker– his new, as-yet untitled book in April (Allen Lane) is bound to be an event, as will the second volume of Simon Schama’s snappily written The Story of the Jews (Bodley Head, September).

    Back on home turf, there are plenty more histories, both sweeping and specific. David Kynaston’s superb Modernist Britain series continues with A Shake of the Dice, 1959-62 (Bloomsbury, September). Two Labour MPs take on British institutions: Chris Bryant in Parliament: the Biography, Volume One (Doubleday, March) and Tristram Hunt in Ten Cities that Made an Empire (Allen Lane, June). That magic “ten things” formula is applied to pop music, in A History of Rock and Roll in Ten Songs by Greil Marcus (Yale University Press, September). The New Statesman science columnist, Michael Brooks, goes one better with his account of “11 Discoveries Taking Science By Surprise”, The Edge of Uncertainty (Profile, October).

    Various historical figures are to be disinterred in 2014. To coincide with the TV adaptation of Wolf Hall, the joint chief curator of royal palaces Tracy Borman attempts a biography of the “real” Thomas Cromwell (Hodder & Stoughton, September). Boris Johnson paints Winston Churchill as a “resounding human rebuttal to all Marxist historians” in The Churchill Factor (Hodder & Stoughton, October) and Churchill’s own biographer Roy Jenkins is given the definitive, doorstopper treatment in John Campbell’s account of a “well-filled and well-rounded” life (Jonathan Cape, March). Across the Atlantic, John Updike gets his first landmark biography in Adam Begley’s Updike (HarperCollins USA, April).

    Life stories of the still-breathing include Alan Johnson’s follow-up to his extraordinarily successful memoir This Boy, There’s a Place (Bantam, September); in the year of Monty Python’s reunion, Terry Gilliam’s neatly timed autobiography (Canongate, October); Vivienne Westwood: The Authorised Life Story, co-written with Ian Kelly (Picador, October) and Not That Kind of Girl: a Young Woman Tells You What She’s Learned by the creator and star of the cult American comedy Girls, Lena Dunham (Fourth Estate, October). Hillary Clinton’s memoir (Simon & Schuster, June) will be read closely by those curious about her intentions for the 2016 presidential elections.

    In fiction, several major British novelists have offerings in 2014. Martin Amis returns to Auschwitz in his 14th novel, The Zone of Interest (Jonathan Cape, August); Hanif Kureishi tells the story of an elderly Indian writer and his white English biographer – echoing the real-life relationship between V S Naipaul and Patrick French – in The Last Word (Faber & Faber, February); the Cloud Atlas author, David Mitchell, goes back to the future in The Bone Clocks (Sceptre, September) and Sarah Waters sets The Paying Guest (Virago, September) in 1920s London. Will Self publishes Shark, a sequel to the Booker-shortlisted Umbrella (Viking, September), and Ali Smith follows There But for The with another intriguingly abbreviated title, How to Both (Hamish Hamilton, August). There’s also a novel from Nick Hornby (Viking, September) and new books from two acclaimed Irish storytellers, Colm Toibín’s 1960s-set Nora Webster (Viking, October) and Sebastian Barry’s The Temporary Gentleman (Faber & Faber, April), picking up the story of the McNulty family at the end of the Second World War.

    Some Granta Best of Young British Novelists alumni have headline billing and some are still waiting in the wings – but this could be a breakthrough year for Adam Foulds (In the Wolf’s Mouth, Jonathan Cape, February) or Andrew O’Hagan (The Illuminations, Faber & Faber, June), both of whom have novels circling around the Second World War.

    Two American masters return in 2014. Fans of Marilynne Robinson will be giddy at the prospect of a new novel, Lila, which lands in October from Virago, while Lorrie Moore’s Bark (Faber & Faber, March) is her first story collection in 15 years. You never have to wait that long to hear from Joyce Carol Oates, who, at 75, still publishes novels at the same rate as the Beatles released LPs. In January, there’s Carthage (Fourth Estate, January), about a troubled Iraq war veteran, and in June, a collection of Gothic novellas, Evil Eye (Head of Zeus, June). Oates has something of a kindred spirit in the macabre film director David Cronenberg – God knows what evils he will dream up in his debut novel Consumed, first announced in 2008 and now finally coming from Fourth Estate in September.

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    On the boiling of eggs and heads.

    “Robin on a leafless bough,/Lord in heaven, how he sings!” For the past eight months, anyone tuning into BBC Radio 4 at 5.58am has heard Tweet of the Day, a pocket celebration of different species of British bird. Each programme lasts just two minutes and mixes stories about the bird’s habits or history with a little stretch of its song. The series, which continues till the spring, is hands down my programme of the year: always perfectly balanced, sound and silence, words and song, infinitely poetic. Pure radio. On Christmas morning, we’ll hear about our national bird, the robin – how, until 1861, postmen wore red coats and were nicknamed “redbreasts”, establishing an irresistible connection between these winter birds and the person who brings Christmas greetings.

    My pick on the BBC World Service over the three festive weeks (16, 23 and 30 December, 8.30pm) is the science programme Discovery, which will join a team of researchers in Antarctica on board an ice-breaker retracing the dangerous route to a fiercely harsh part of the region taken between 1911 and 1914 by Douglas Mawson, while the more celebrated Scott and Amundsen raced to the South Pole. This remotest of areas hasn’t been studied systematically since, so the expedition will be reporting about the changes it finds. We are, among other things, promised “the underwater song of seals”.

    On 27 December, the musician P J Harvey guest-edited the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 (6am), which included a frank interview with the photojournalist and documentary photographer Giles Duley, a triple amputee, talking about how images of injury in conflict are managed by the media. Joan Baez plays music and Ralph Fiennes reads poetry – he is an unusually good reader of poetry. In his rendition of The Waste Land, for example, he entirely resists the temptation to overdo it. Fiennes just keeps it steady and is pin-precise with his pronunciation, whether Sanskrit or German. (A note to anyone considering buying Faber & Faber’s Waste Land app as a Christmas present: do so. It’s worth it for Viggo Mortensen’s reading of “The Fire Sermon” alone.)

    BBC Radio 3’s Sunday Feature (29 December, 6.45pm) gives a nod to the pantomime season in Anything but Banal: the Fascination of the Villain. A look at malefactors in everything from Shakespeare’s plays to Hollywood films, there are game contributions promised from those such as Antony Sher and Stephanie Beacham. Sher, doubtless, will be the best of the lot, having written on the subject of evil brilliantly in his 1985 memoir Year of the King, documenting his time spent playing Richard III for the RSC while the Nilsen murder case filled the papers with its stories of heads boiling on stoves and flesh stuffed down drains. Sher spent hours sketching Nilsen, looking for signs in that ordinary face that he could connect to villainy, to his portrayal of Richard. He asked his boyfriend if he thought we all had a Nilsen in us. “Well, certainly not you,” was the reply. “You can’t boil an egg, never mind someone’s head.” Happy new Year! 

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

    1. The next election may be a year away, but Osborne is on the campaign trail. It’s a risky strategy (Independent)

    A party’s pre-election "tax and spend" plans can withstand scrutiny for six months but not for a year and a half, says Steve Richards.

    2. Minimum wage rise could be a Tory winner (Times)

    Cameron needs a surprise move to rebuild his party’s image, writes Rachel Sylvester. It may come with a boost for the low paid.

    3. Young should blame bad luck not policy (Financial Times)

    The baby boomers enjoyed almost miraculously benign circumstances that will not be repeated, writes Janan Ganesh.

    4. George Osborne's cuts are a squeeze too far (Guardian)

    Cuts on the scale the chancellor is suggesting would be extreme – and they are not necessary, says IFS head Paul Johnson.

    5. A Smaller State (Times)

    The government is right to seek more cuts — but it is unfair to load the burden on to the young, says a Times editorial.

    6. There's a new climate of diktat and fear sweeping through the NHS (Guardian)

    An occupational therapist who won awards for her work has been sacked for querying cuts to a stroke unit, writes Polly Toynbee.

    7. Cameron’s plan for 2014 is to prove he’s a man of his word (Daily Telegraph)

    This year will be the Tory leadership’s chance to show that its promises are worth having, writes Benedict Brogan.

    8. Take inspiration from Sarajevo, not Munich (Financial Times)

    Pointless aggression belongs in the playground, not in international affairs, says Gideon Rachman.

    9. Pragmatic public wants immigration mended, not ended (Independent)

    People may prefer to see immigration at lower levels – but they don’t want to turn away the positive contribution from migrants, says Sunder Katwala.

    10. Betting-shop machines sucking cash out of communities … this is what predatory capitalism looks like (Guardian)

    While giving councils greater powers to block new gambling shops, it would be better to cut the maximum stake on fixed-odds betting terminals, says Aditya Chakrabortty.

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    Having distanced himself from neo-liberalism, Ed Miliband needs to redefine British social democracy as more participative, more socially liberal, and more community-focused.

    2014 will usher in a new dynamic in British politics, a time when Labour’s credentials as a potential party of government will be subject to sustained, critical examination. This is the moment when the party has to reveal more about the policy directions it intends to pursue, signalling where its real priorities for Britain lie. And this is the year that will reveal whether Labour has used its time in opposition to think imaginatively about its mistakes – and governing achievements.

    It is vital that the party’s policy review is ruthlessly tailored to the challenges and pressures of the post-crisis age, and neither refuses to evade current realities nor reverts to the managerialist populism which characterised New Labour’s final days. It has to address key strategic challenges, signalling its acceptance of the hard choices that policy-making inevitably entails in today’s world.

    The first challenge is the sheer scale of the retrenchment that the current administration has been inflicting on the public sector, and its long-term implications. According to the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), by 2017-18 government consumption of goods and services will be at its lowest level since the end of the Second World War. A centre-left party will have to learn to govern with far less public money around. It should avoid becoming trapped in a defensive, austerity-lite mindset, salami-slicing departmental budgets without determining the major social priorities it intends to pursue.

    Labour needs to make a compelling case for 'switch spending' – allocating resources according to distinctive priorities beyond those favoured by its opponents, while identifying itself as the party that speaks up for the public realm. This means making a case for the social and economic value of public investment in those areas where the market cannot be relied on to deliver - infrastructure, universities, childcare, and social care. In the stringent fiscal circumstances Labour will inherit, identifying national priorities means starting to level with the public about the areas where spending needs to be  tightened , while signalling the kind of tax regime which it believes is required to perpetuate growth and ensure a fairer recovery Saying hardly anything about  these questions, for fear of offering a target to the party’s opponents, is likely to undermine Labour’s chances of securing the kind of electoral coalition which it needs to secure victory in 2015.

    The second related challenge concerns the impact upon the UK’s society and economy of the financial crisis, and subsequent recession. Overly stringent austerity has eroded the productive base of the UK economy yet further. The scarring effects of the recession are manifest in the appallingly high numbers of young unemployed and crippling poverty levels among families with 'working poor' parents. Social mobility has ground to a halt while the capacity of middle class parents to horde the advantages of money and human capital accrued across generations are a major obstacle to an inclusive and fair society. A party that seeks to sustain a principled, reforming government needs to prepare the ground for the kinds of measures – mansion and land taxes, a higher minimum wage, an expansion of the pupil premium (right up to university level), and investment in childcare – which are urgently required.

    The third strategic challenge that Labour must confront is the implications of the growing crisis facing the future integrity of the United Kingdom. The party is not alone at Westminster in failing to establish a cogent response to the dilemmas posed by a referendum on Scottish independence, the threat posed by the populist nationalism espoused by UKIP, and the UK’s membership of the European Union. Indeed, the fumbling, confused response of the UK parties has fermented a governing crisis at least as potent in its implications as the global financial crash. Were Scotland to vote ‘yes’ to independence in 2014, or  the UK to vote to leave the EU  in 2017, the shocks administered to the British political system would be nothing short of seismic.

    If Labour is to become the party that breaks the extraordinary concentration of political and economic power in London - distorting the social and economic balance of England and the rest of the UK - then it must engage with rising resentment about the absence of a political voice and economic levers for many different English communities. A road map is needed for how power will be devolved to cities and counties as a credible answer to the English question, for so long evaded in British politics.

    Labour needs to face up to these issues and to give a broad indication of its intentions in the face of them. At present, the temptation is to revert to the well-intentioned redistributivism and Treasury orthodoxy that were a hallmark of the Brown era. Yet the notion that Labour might pursue a fairer society primarily through the long arm of the central state – using familiar tools such as public spending and tax credits – is fraught with danger. Such a notion ignores the problem of legitimacy which that kind of top-down statism now faces in England – the sole remaining territory directly controlled by a Westminster government. An approach that merely ameliorates the dysfunctional and systematic inequality generated by markets and inequitable public service provision is also expensive and wasteful.

    A shift of focus towards preventative up-front investment; a new model of social partnership – between government and civil society, and  the dispersal of power to agencies more likely to address the problems faced by different localities – would signal a distinctive approach to tackling some of the major problems facing England, and tackle  Labour’s reputation for excessive managerialism. It is increasingly evident that complex policy challenges – entrenched pockets of social disadvantage and isolation, the looming threat of obesity and lifestyle diseases, the prospect of catastrophic climate change – require a markedly different use of public power, a new model of partnership which is co-ordinated at local level, not the corridors of Whitehall.

    The imperative to devolve more economic and political power across England should be reflected in a concerted programme of public service reform relying on the values of voice and locality, as well as choice; a welfare system in which contribution and protection are re-combined; and an explicit focus on SMEs and promoting local entrepreneurship. Only the concerted dispersal of power to individuals, communities and localities will provide the basis for an attack on elite vested interests and class-based inequalities that hold people back.    

    Examples of this vision can be glimpsed in the work that local authorities throughout England from Oldham to Southwark are doing – drawing on the resources of communities, sharing front-line services, forging creative partnerships with the charitable sector and business, focusing on well-being and cultivating a  sense of place, while bringing neighbourhoods together to create public assets serving the common good.

    Since 2010, Ed Miliband has demonstrated an impressive capacity to open up ideological territory and go against the conventional political grain. This quality might yet prove to be his winning card. Having distanced himself from the 'neo-liberalism' of the previous era, he needs now to redefine British social democracy as more participative, more socially liberal, and more community-focused. This kind of politics draws upon the non-statist strand of Labour’s heritage, reconnecting with those traditions that have woven decentralising and pluralist ideas with a determined opposition to injustice, alongside an understanding that the public realm means much more than the central state.

    Patrick Diamond is vice chair of Policy Network, lecturer in public policy at Queen Mary, University of London, and a former Labour adviser

    Michael Kenny is research associate at IPPR and professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London

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    Illusions can offer insights into how the visual system processes images.

    Maurits Escher: where do the staircases lead?

    The human brain is a network of about 20 billion neurons – nerve cells – linked by several trillion connections. Not to mention glial cells, which scientists used to think were inactive scaffolding, but increasingly view as an essential part of how the brain works. Our brains give us movement, language, senses, memories, consciousness and personality. We know a lot more about the brain than we used to, but it still seems far too complicated for human understanding.

    Fortunately, the brain contains many small networks of neurons that carry out some specific function: vision, hearing, movement. It makes sense to tackle these simple modules first. Moreover, we have good mathematical models of nerve cell behaviour. In 1952, Alan Hodgkin and Andrew Huxley wrote down the “Hodgkin-Huxley equations” for the transmission of a nerve impulse, which won them the 1963 Nobel Prize in Medicine. We also have effective techniques for understanding small networks’ components and how they are linked.

    Many of these simple networks occur in the visual system. We used to think that the eye was like a camera, taking a “snapshot” of the outside world that was stored in the brain like a photo stuck in an album. It uses a lens to focus an image on to the retina at the back of the eye, which functions a bit like a roll of film – or, in today’s digital cameras, a charge-coupled device, storing an image pixel by pixel. But we now know that when the retina sends information to the brain’s visual cortex, the similarity to a camera ends.

    Although we get a strong impression that what we are seeing is “out there” in front of us, what determines that perception resides inside our own heads. The brain decomposes images into simple pieces, works out what they are, “labels” them with that information, and reassembles them. When we see three sheep and two pigs in a field, we “know” which bits are sheep, which are pigs, and how many of each there are. If you try to program a computer to do that, you quickly realise how tricky the process is. Only very recently have computers been able to distinguish between faces, let alone sheep and pigs.

    Probing the brain’s detailed activity is difficult. Rapid progress is being made, but it still takes a huge effort to get reliable information. But when science cannot observe something directly, it infers it, working indirectly. An effective way to infer how something functions is to see what it does when it goes wrong. It may be hard to understand a bridge while it stays up, but you can learn a lot about strength of materials when it collapses.

    The visual system can “go wrong” in several interesting ways. Hallucinogenic drugs can change how neurons behave, producing dramatic images such as spinning spirals, which originate not in the eye, but in the brain. Some images even cause the brain to misinterpret what it’s seeing without outside help. We call them optical illusions.

    One of the earliest was discovered in Renaissance Italy in the 16th century. Giambattista della Porta was the middle of three surviving sons of a wealthy merchant nobleman who became secretary to the Holy Roman emperor Charles V. The father was an intellectual, and Giambattista grew up in a house in Naples that hosted innumerable mathematicians, scientists, poets and musicians. He became an outstanding polymath, with publications on secret codes (including writing on the inside of eggshells), physiology, botany, agriculture, engineering, and much else. He wrote more than 20 plays.

    Della Porta was particularly interested in the science of light. He made definitive improvements to the camera obscura, a device that projects an image of the outside world into a darkened room; he claimed to have invented the telescope before Galileo, and very likely did. His De refractione optices of 1593 contained the first report of a curious optical effect. He arranged two books so that one was visible to one eye only and the other to the other eye. Instead of seeing a combination of the two images, he perceived them alternately. He discovered that he could select either image at will by consciously switching his attention. This phenomenon is known today as binocular rivalry.

    Two other distinct but related effects are impossible figures and visual illusions. In rivalry, each image appears unambiguous, but the eyes are shown conflicting images. In the other two phenomena, both eyes see the same image, but in one case it doesn’t make sense, and in the other it makes sense but is ambiguous.

    Impossible figures at first sight seem to be entirely normal, but depict things that cannot exist – such as Roger Shepard’s 1990 drawing of an elephant in which everything above the knees makes sense, and everything below the knees makes sense, but the two regions do not fit together correctly. The Dutch artist Maurits Escher made frequent use of this kind of visual quirk.

    In 1832, the Swiss crystallographer Louis Necker invented his “Necker cube” illusion, a skeletal cube that seems to switch its orientation repeatedly. An 1892 issue of the humorous German magazine Fliegende Blätter contains a picture with the caption “Which animals are most like each other?” and the answer “Rabbit and duck”. In a 1915 issue of the American magazine Puck, the cartoonist Ely William Hill published “My wife and my mother-in-law”, based on an 1888 German postcard. The image can be seen either as a young lady looking back over her shoulder, or as an elderly woman facing forwards. Several of Salvador Dalí’s paintings include illusions; especially Slave Market With the Apparition of the Invisible Bust of Voltaire, where a number of figures and everyday objects, carefully arranged, combine to give the impression of the French writer’s face.

    Illusions offer insights into how the visual system processes images. The first few stages are fairly well understood. The top layer in the visual cortex detects edges of objects and the direction in which they are pointing. This information is passed to lower layers, which detect places where the direction suddenly changes, such as corners. Eventually some region in the cortex detects that you are looking at a human face and that it belongs to Aunt Matilda. Other parts of the brain are alerted, and you belatedly remember that tomorrow is her birthday and hurry off to buy a present.

    These things don’t happen by magic. They have a very definite rationale, and that’s where the mathematics comes in. The top layer of the visual cortex contains innumerable tiny stacks of nerve cells. Each stack is like a pile of pancakes, and each pancake is a network of neurons that is sensitive to edges that point in one specific direction: one o’clock, two o’clock and so on.

    For simplicity, call this network a cell; it does no harm to think of it as a single neuron. Roughly speaking, the cell at the top of the stack senses edges at the one o’clock position, the next one down corresponds to the two o’clock angle, and so on. If one cell receives a suitable input signal, it “fires”, telling all the other cells in its stack: “I’ve seen a boundary in the five o’clock direction.” However, another cell in the same stack might disagree, claiming the direction is at seven o’clock. How to resolve this conflict?

    Neurons are linked by two kinds of connection, excitatory and inhibitory. If a neuron activates an excitatory connection, those at the other end of it are more likely to fire themselves. An inhibitory connection makes them less likely to fire. The cortex uses inhibitory connections to reach a definite decision. When a cell fires, it sends inhibitory signals to all of the other cells in its stack. These signals compete for attention. If the five o’clock signal is stronger than the seven o’clock one, for instance, the seven o’clock one gets shut down. The cells in effect “vote” on which direction they are detecting and the winner takes all.

    Many neuroscientists think that something very similar is going on in visual illusions and rivalry. Think of the duck and rabbit with two possible interpretations. Hugh R Wilson, a neuroscientist at the Centre for Vision Research at York University, Toronto, proposed the simplest model, one stack with just two cells. Rodica Curtu, a mathematician at the University of Iowa, John Rinzel, a biomathematician then at the National Institutes of Health, and several other scientists have analysed this model in more detail. The basic idea is that one cell fires if the picture looks like a duck, the other if it resembles a rabbit. Because of the inhibitory connections, the winner should take all. Except that, in this illusion, it doesn’t quite work, because the two choices are equally plausible. That’s what makes it an illusion. So both cells want to fire. But they can’t, because of those inhibitory connections. Yet neither can they both remain quiescent, because the incoming signals encourage them to fire.

    One possibility is that random signals coming from elsewhere in the brain might introduce a bias of perception, so that one cell still wins. However, the mathematical model predicts that, even without such bias, the signals in both cells should oscillate from active to inactive and back again, each becoming active when the other is not. It’s as if the network is dithering: the two cells take turns to fire and the network perceives the image as a duck, then as a rabbit, and keeps switching from one to the other. Which is what happens in reality.

    Generalising from this observation, Wilson proposed a similar type of network that can model decision-making in the brain – which political party to support, for instance. But now the network consists of several stacks. Maybe one stack represents immigration policy, another unemployment, a third financial regulation, and so on. Each stack consists of cells that “recognise” a distinct policy feature. So the financial regulation stack has cells that recognise state regulation by law, self-regulation by the industry, or free-market economics.

    The overall political stance of any given political party is a choice of one cell from each stack – one policy decision on each issue. Each prospective voter has his or her preferences, and these might not match those of any particular party. If these choices are used as inputs to the network, it will identify the party that most closely fits what the voter prefers. That decision can then be passed to other areas of the brain. Some voters may find themselves in a state akin to a visual illusion, vacillating between Labour and Liberal Democrat, or Conservative and Ukip.

    This idea is speculative and it is not intended to be a literal description of how we decide whom to vote for. It is a schematic outline of something more complex, involving many regions of the brain. However, it provides a simple and flexible model for decision-making by a neural network, and in particular it shows that simple networks can do the job quite well. Martin Golubitsky of the Mathematical Biosciences Institute at Ohio State University and Casey O Diekman of the University of Michigan wondered whether Wilson’s networks could be used to model more complex examples of rivalry and illusions. Crucially, the resulting models allow specific predictions about experiments that have not yet been performed, making the whole idea scientifically testable.

    The first success of this approach helped to explain an experiment that had already been carried out, with puzzling results. When the brain reassembles the separate bits of an image, it is said to “bind” these pieces. Rivalry provides evidence that binding occurs, by making it go wrong. In a rivalry experiment carried out in 2006 by S W Hong and S K Shevell, the subject’s left eye is shown a horizontal grid of grey and pink lines while the right eye sees a vertical grid of grey and green lines. Many subjects perceive an alternation between the images, just as della Porta did with his books. But some see two different images alternating: pink and green vertical lines, and pink and green horizontal lines – images shown to neither eye. This effect is called colour misbinding; it tells us that the reassembly process has matched colour to grid direction incorrectly. It is as if della Porta had ended up seeing another book altogether.

    Golubitsky and Diekman studied the simplest Wilson network corresponding to this experiment. It has two stacks: one for colour, one for grid direction. Each stack has two cells. In the “colour” stack one cell detects pink and the other green; in the “orientation” stack one cell detects vertical and the other horizontal. As usual, there are inhibitory connections within each stack to ensure a winner-takes-all decision.

    Following Wilson’s general scheme, they also added excitatory connections between cells in distinct stacks, representing the combinations of colour and direction that occur in the two “learned” images – those actually presented to the two eyes. Then they used recent mathematical techniques to list the patterns that arise in such a network. They found two types of oscillatory pattern. One corresponds to alternation between the two learned images. The other corresponds precisely to alternation between the two images seen in colour misbinding.

    Colour misbinding is therefore a natural feature of the dynamics of Wilson networks. Although the network is “set up” to detect the two learned images, its structure produces an unexpected side effect: two images that were not learned. The rivalry experiment reveals hints of the brain’s hidden wiring. The same techniques apply to many other experiments, including some that have not yet been performed. They lead to very specific predictions, including more circumstances in which subjects will observe patterns that were not presented to either eye.

    Similar models also apply to illusions. However, the excitatory connections cannot be determined by the images shown to the two eyes, because both eyes see the same image. One suggestion is that the connections may be determined by what your visual system already “knows” about real objects.

    Take the celebrated moving illusion called “the spinning dancer”. Some observers see the solid silhouette of a dancer spinning anticlockwise, others clockwise. Sometimes, the direction of spin seems to switch suddenly.

    We know that the top half of a spinning dancer can spin either clockwise or anticlockwise. Ditto for the bottom half. In principle, if the top half spins one way but the bottom half spins the other way, you would see the same silhouette, as if both were moving together. When people are shown “the spinning dancer”, no one sees the halves moving independently. If the top half spins clockwise, so does the bottom half.

    Why do our brains do this? We can model that information using a series of stacks that correspond to different parts of the dancer’s body. The brain’s prior knowledge sets up a set of excitatory connections between all cells that sense clockwise motion, and another set of excitatory connections between all “anticlockwise” cells. We can also add inhibitory connections between the “clockwise” and the “anticlockwise” cells. These connections collectively tell the network that all parts of the object being perceived must spin in the same direction at any instant. Our brains don’t allow for a “half and half” interpretation.

    When we analyse this network mathematically, it turns out that the cells switch repeatedly between a state in which all clockwise cells are firing but the anticlockwise ones are quiescent, and a state in which all anticlockwise cells are firing but the clockwise ones are quiescent. The upshot is that we perceive the whole figure of the dancer switching directions. Similar networks provide sensible models for many other illusions, including some in which there are three different inputs.

    These models provide a common framework for both rivalry and illusion, and they unify many experiments, explain otherwise puzzling results and make new predictions that can be tested. They also tell us that in principle the brain can carry out some apparently complex tasks using simple networks. (What it does in practice is probably different in detail, but could well follow the same general lines.)

    This could help make sense of a real brain, as new experiments improve our ability to observe its “wiring diagram”. It might not be as ambitious as trying to model the whole thing on a computer, but modesty can be a virtue. Since simple networks behave in strange and unexpected ways, what incomprehensible quirks might a complicated network have?

    Perhaps Dalí, and Escher, and the spinning dancer can help us find out. 

    Ian Stewart is Emeritus Professor of Mathematics and Digital Media Fellow at the University of Warwick

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    We are living through a glorious age of rewrites, reversions, pastiches and homages, and the continuation of the Asterix series is a prime example of how well this can work.

    Image: Les Editions Albert Rene

    Asterix and the Picts
    Jean-Yves Ferri and Didier Conrad
    Orion, 48pp, £10.99

    “The Year is 50BC. Gaul is entirely occupied by the Romans. Well, not entirely . . . One small village of indomitable Gauls still holds out against the invaders.” By Toutatis! They’re still holding out – over half a century since they first appeared in the magazine Pilote, founded by a group of young French comic writers and illustrators, including René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo, in October 1959, and a full eight years since the last Asterix book. Indeed: bis repetita placent!

    After much wrestling and wrangling, a new Asterix book finally comes thundering off the presses, fists flying and Latin tags a-whirling, ready to fill Christmas stockings around the world – in an astonishing print run of no fewer than five million.

    The indomitable Gauls have now been battling against the odds for years. Goscinny, who wrote the words, died in 1977 and the series might well have come to end there and then with Asterix in Belgium, if it hadn’t been for the illustrator, Uderzo, deciding to soldier on and continue with the series alone. He went on to produce another ten albums – of, it has to be said, rather variable quality.

    Trials then followed tribulations: when Uderzo sold his rights in the series to the publishing giant Hachette in 2009, his daughter, Sylvie, wrote an open letter to Le Monde condemning him for selling out to “les hommes de l’industrie et de la finance”, and for betraying the values of Asterix and everything she had been brought up to believe in: “l’indépendance, la fraternité, la convivialité et la résistance”. A bitter court case followed. A series of live-action Asterix films – starring Gérard Depardieu as Obelix, the role he was born to play – broke records as the most expensive French films ever made, yet were all pretty terrible. Uderzo’s last story, Asterix and the Falling Sky (2005), in which Asterix and Obelix battled aliens, was, frankly, feeble.

    But now is a moment of rebirth and reinvention. Uderzo has recruited a new writer and an illustrator – Jean-Yves Ferri and Didier Conrad – and handed over the menhir-sized baton to a new generation. In an introductory note to the book he wishes his successors well: “Congratulations to Jean-Yves Ferri and Didier Conrad for having the courage and talent to write and draw the new Asterix album.” So is it courage? Or sheer foolhardiness?

    Actually, Asterix and the Picts marks a respectable return to form. The story concerns the plight of a Pictish warrior, MacAroon, “from distant Caledonia”, who has been washed ashore in Gaul and whom Asterix and Obelix obligingly help to return to his home country, rescuing his beloved, the red-haired Camomilla, from an evil rival chieftain, MacCabaeus. There is the usual battle with pirates and with a sea monster called Nessie, and the characters are represented in all their ludicrous glory: Getafix, the village druid; Vitalstatistix, the chief of the tribe; Cacofonix the bard; Impedimenta; Geriatrix; Unhygienix the fish vendor. (Interestingly, the translator, the ever-fastidious Anthea Bell – whom we have to thank for translating the mildly amusing French dog Idéfix into the truly magnificent Dogmatix, and the dutiful old French druid Panoramix into the delightful Getafix – has outlasted her French begetters and now finds herself working with Ferri and Conrad.)

    The storyline lacks some of the complexity and subtlety of the early books and there is more than a touch of cute about some of the illustrations, with Camomilla looking suspiciously like a Disney princess, but nonetheless it’s good to have Asterix back.

    The real question is why bother at all to try to keep the series going, except – obviously – as a marketing and franchising operation? We are living through a glorious age of rewrites, reversions, pastiches and homages: the past few years have seen an excellent new Sherlock Holmes, in Anthony Horowitz’s The House of Silk (2011); two new Bond books, courtesy of William Boyd and Sebastian Faulks; and a new P G Wodehouse out for Christmas, Jeeves and the Wedding Bells, again by Faulks, who is emerging as the modern English master of mimicry.

    The novel has always been a weird, self- regenerating, recombinant form but the long-form comic is arguably only now discovering its true powers and possibilities, from Joe Sacco’s serious reportage to Gene Luen Yang’s historical graphic novel Boxers and Saints – so why return to the scene of past glories, like a Dogmatix to its vomit? What’s in Asterix’s magic potion?

    Perhaps it’s simply the appeal of the underdog. Asterix is clearly for children, and for losers: it depicts a world where ungovernable appetites are momentarily sated and fulfilled. Growing up, one knew instinctively that Tintin and his adventures represented a world of adult meanings and responsibilities, unattainable sophistication and privilege. The Tintin books were for the sort of people who went to actual France on actual holidays; the sort of people who might read the books in the original French.

    Asterix, with its absurd levels of comic-book violence – all those swirling stars and sticking-out tongues, black eyes and bumps to the head – was for anybody and everybody. It was the sort of thing you actually wanted to read. One could imagine a Tintin book as a gift from a benevolent godfather but you discovered Asterix for yourself, well-thumbed and plastic-covered, in the grubby wooden dump-bins of the local library.

    The difference between these two great texts – or text-types – is revealing. According to the novelist Tom McCarthy, “The difference between Asterix and Tintin is like the difference between a Quentin Tarantino and a David Lynch film. One’s witty entertainment, the other’s great art.” There are a number of false assumptions about higher and lower degrees of art in McCarthy’s claim but he is certainly on to something.

    What he may be on to is the age-old difference between different modes of storytelling, as defined by Erich Auerbach in “Odysseus’ Scar”, the famous first chapter of his book Mimesis (1946). Here, he contrasts a style characterised by “externalised, uniformly illuminated phenomena . . . connected together without lacunae in a perpetual foreground” with a style characterised by the “externalisation of only so much of the phenomena as is necessary for the purpose of the narrative, all else left in obscurity . . . permeated with the most unrelieved suspense . . . and ‘fraught with background’”.

    Tom McCarthy prefers “great art”. And why not? I happen to prefer entertainment.

    Tintin is basically a do-gooder; Asterix and Obelix are a couple of lads with moustaches, out on the lash, wearing comedy trousers. Tintin abides by a strict code of ethics; Asterix and Obelix are always up for a fight. Tintin is about the process; Asterix is all outcome.

    Above all, in Tintin there is a vast predominance of plot machinery, a superabundance of codes to crack and enigmas to solve. But in Asterix the plots are simple and the end result is always assured: the Romans are always beaten, there is always a banquet. Every Asterix album is really just a copy of the very first one, Asterix the Gaul (1961). Nothing changes. Tintin continually aspires to be more than itself, or what it was: Asterix is what it is. Defending his work, Goscinny once remarked, “Our only ambition is to have fun.”

    This does not mean Asterix is merely witless and vulgar. Certainly, there is much in the books that is old hat and hackneyed, but then Tintin is often pretentious and affected. Hergé seems to have written primarily for his own pleasure and satisfaction, without reference to the needs and tastes of others – and as a consequence Tintin can now seem rather quaint and dated, a work of whimsy subject to the strange and incommunicable demands of its own laws and desires.

    Asterix, on the other hand, always was the product of several sets of hands and minds, and so it achieves the level – almost – of epic. In the end, who cares who draws the pictures? Who the hell was Homer?

    Ian Sansom’s books include “The Norfolk Mystery” (Fourth Estate, £14.99)

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    Darcus Howe, writer, campaigner and broadcaster, has been part of Britain’s political landscape since the late 1960s. Here, the authors of a new biography explore the origins of what was to become a life-long struggle to expose racism in the police.

    Darcus Howe has a talent for turning conventional wisdom on its head. The most recent example was Howe’s return to the headlines in the summer of 2011. On 9 August Howe began trending on Twitter and YouTube due to a poorly handled BBC interview. 9 August was no slow news day, it was the climax of the "England Riots". Fiona Armstrong, who conducted the interview, invited Howe to condemn the "rioters". Condemnation had been the knee-jerk reaction of Britain’s political class. Howe bucked the trend, saving his condemnation for the police: the institution that had killed Mark Duggan. The interview provoked controversy and eventually went viral, largely, due to Armstrong’s apparently high-handed tone and perverse attempt to brand Howe "a rioter" himself. Armstrong seemed to have no time for Howe’s claim that the police were subjecting young black men to a rampant campaign of stop and search.

    Perhaps Armstrong’s mistake was that she didn’t understand Howe’s history. She introduced Howe as "a writer and broadcaster", and while this is true, and includes a 17-year stint as columnist for the New Statesman, it is not the whole story. Before Devil’s Advocate made Howe a public figure he spent more than two decades organising grassroots campaigns for racial justice. It was here that Howe’s ability to confound expectations was first apparent. In the early 1970s the government took it as read that Britain’s fledgling Black Power movement was no match for the combined might of the police and the judiciary. Howe proved them wrong. In the face of racist policing and corruption in Notting Hill, Howe organised a protest march. The march led to arrests, and the arrests to the trial of the "Mangrove Nine": the most sensational political trial of the decade. Not only did Howe and the Nine win their freedom, they forced the first judicial acknowledgement of racism in the police. In the mid seventies, working with the Bengali Housing Action Group, Howe helped organise the largest squat in British history, a temporary prelude to a campaign that forced the GLC to provide decent, safe, and permanent housing of the East End’s Bengali community. 

    In 1981 Howe conceived Black People’s Day of Action, a 20,000 strong march, the largest of its kind, uniting black people from across Britain in protest at police mishandling of the New Cross Fire in which 13 black youths had lost their lives. The success of these campaigns was no accident. Howe’s radicalism was informed by his relationships with some of the greatest black intellectuals and revolutionaries of the age, including Walter Rodney, Stokely Carmichael, John La Rose and C L R James.

    Howe has been part of Britain’s political landscape since the late 1960s. Yet, while he has proved hard to ignore, as the Armstrong interview indicates, he has often been hastily dismissed. The following extract from Darcus Howe: A Political Biography, is titled "Cause for Concern". It details one of Howe’s earliest campaigns against institutional racism in the police.


    In the summer of 1968, a documentary was broadcast by the BBC series Cause For Concern that, in Howe’s words, turned out to be a ‘major watershed in the struggle in which the police and black community were locked.’ The programme would set out in detail a number of shocking cases of police brutality and corruption against members of the black community and then invite senior officers within Metropolitan police (the Met) to respond to the charge that the police were racist.

    The BBC’s proposal to broach this subject in the mainstream media for the first time unleashed a storm of controversy, and prompted a campaign of threats and recriminations from the Met designed to stop the programme from being screened. The documentary was the brainchild of BBC producer Richard Taylor. In early 1968, he approached Selma James, C L R James’ wife and a gifted writer, organiser and activist, to ask her for names of people who could appear in a film exploring the issue of police racism. James was well connected and well regarded at the BBC, where she worked as an audio typist. When James heard what Taylor was proposing, she said that she did not believe he would ever get the documentary aired but agreed to help him try however she could.

    Selma James suggested names of black victims of police brutality whose cases she was familiar with from her activist work as a member of the Black Regional Action Movement. As the first organizing secretary of Campaign Against Racial Discrimination (CARD) elected in 1965, James also recommended fellow member and radical barrister Ian Macdonald as someone who could participate in a live studio discussion about how police frequently abused their powers when dealing with members of the black community. Finally, James suggested several grassroots activists involved in campaigns against police racism such as Darcus Howe and Fennis Augustine. Augustine was a Grenadian trade union shop steward and an activist within the West Indian Standing Conference who would later go on to become the High Commissioner for Grenada under Maurice Bishop ’ s revolutionary government.

    Thus, in July 1968, Howe was invited by Cause for Concern to participate in a live panel discussion involving black political activists and campaigners alongside senior officers of the Metropolitan Police over allegations that the police were racist. Entitled ‘Equal before the Law?’, the episode explored issues raised in a documentary to be screened before the live discussion. The film detailed several cases of the police racism, including instances of brutality, arrests on trumped-up charges and the fabrication of evidence to secure criminal convictions. It showed how in one case, officers from the Met planted car keys on a black schoolteacher and his friend, a barrister, and had charged them with stealing a police car. They were eventually acquitted and the Met was ordered to pay £ 8,000 in compensation. Black victims of police brutality spoke of how racial abuse preceded beatings while in custody. The documentary ended with an interview with an ex-police officer who spoke of how ‘colour prejudice’ was ‘virtually absolute . . . it extends to probably 99%’ of the force.

    In its listing for the programme on 26 July 1968, the Radio Times had posed the question: ‘Is the black man particularly vulnerable when he comes up against the law?’ After describing the ‘hardman cult’ which existed among the lower ranks, requiring the young police recruit to prove himself by the number of arrests he made, the former officer was asked this same question by the presenter. His response was damning:

    The old tradition would be that the coloured man is not as fully aware of his rights as a white man would be and on this assumption I suppose he would be more vulnerable.

    Howe realized the significance of the documentary the moment he saw it. Up until that point, ‘a conspiracy of silence’ encompassed mainstream media, politicians and white liberals. Even multiracial lobby groups had kept the issue of police harassment and racial persecution from public view, ‘thereby reinforcing the untrammelled power exercised by the police over the black community.’ The bold and unambiguous content of the programme was bound to alter the balance of opinion. At the very least it would upset the complacency of white viewers and force them to take a position.

    Just as far-reaching was the effect that the programme would have on black organizations. Howe knew that many multiracial and black lobby groups would be profoundly shaken by its revelations. CARD, which in 1967 had prompted disaffiliation by its more militant members by agreeing to partner the new statutory body, National Council for Commonwealth Immigrants (NCCI), together with a host of smaller black support and welfare groups, had a strategy of quietly trying to persuade a liberal section of the British ruling class to ameliorate the worst conditions suffered by the black community. As Howe later explained, this approach had the effect of rendering black people ‘as helpless victims whom the liberals, with black middle-class aspirants alongside them, would assist in adjusting to the discipline and control of capitalist institutions’. These forces reacted with alarm to the Black Power movement and its calls for direct action and therefore wished to avoid at all costs any high-profile public discussion of police racism, which would inevitably unleash the anger of the black working class.

    The programme could not have come at a worse time for the Met. In May 1968, they had fiercely resisted the Home Secretary James Callaghan’s proposal to add a clause to the Police Code, making it an offence to discriminate against black immigrants; the Police Federation declared it ‘a gross insult even to suggest it’, alleging that its purpose was to ‘placate the misplaced fears of some immigrant bodies that they may not get fair treatment.’

    When senior officers from the Met were invited to an advance screening of the documentary, they were incandescent with rage. The late Sir Robert Mark, then assistant commissioner for the Met, puts the following gloss on the police reaction to the documentary in his memoirs:

    Representatives of the Met were only allowed to see the film after its completion. They were horrified. The Commissioner objected to its viewing and the BBC got cold feet. Then of course the civil libertarian press began to rage about censorship and to make matters worse the commissioner gave a brief interview to ITV. The BBC therefore decided to go ahead.

    As Howe has since pointed out, Mark’s account conceals more than it reveals. The Commissioner did not merely object; he authorized his senior officers to deploy a series of increasingly desperate tactics to stop the programme from reaching public view. Senior officers at Scotland Yard threatened to withdraw future co-operation with BBC journalists if the film was shown, and lawyers acting for the Metropolitan Police sent letters the BBC reserving their right to seek a High Court injunction to stop the programme from being aired. Initially, the pressure was effective and BBC management bowed to police pressure, dropping the film from the schedule. That would have been the end of the affair if Richard Taylor had not telephoned Selma James. As James recalls it, the conversation began with Taylor’s acknowledgement, ‘you were right, they are not letting it on the air, but don’t tell anyone.’ After receiving the call, James telephoned another producer she knew at the BBC and told him what had happened. He told her to leak the story to the ‘Inside Pages’ of the Daily Mirror. The paper would, he opined, be very interested in the story and would still print it even if she did not provide her name. James followed his advice, and as predicted, the story was front-page news in the Mirror and then in every other newspaper thereafter.

    In addition to the public outcry and scorn of the press and civil liberties groups that followed these revelations of the BBC’s acquiescence to police bullying, James, Howe, Fennis Augustine and others organized a daily picket of the BBC Broadcasting House. Howe attended along with his wife Una and daughter Tamara, who in adulthood has followed her father into a career in broadcasting and is now chief operating officer at the children’s programmes wing of the BBC. ‘I like to remind her that her first experience of the BBC was when she picketed it as a child,’ Howe remarks.

    Entitled Cause For Alarm, the daily picket by up to 20 black activists and their supporters became a focal point for the press in their coverage of the campaign against police attempts to censor the BBC’s output. As public criticism of the BBC built to a crescendo and threatened to do permanent reputational damage to the BBC, the Corporation bowed to public pressure and rescheduled the programme and the live studio discussion that was to follow it.

    The police appear to have made one last bid to have the programme pulled by the BBC. On the day before it was aired, they arrested Blank Panther leader Obi Egbuna on a charge of writing threats to kill police officers at Hyde Park. The timing of the arrest and the decision to charge him with such a heinous crime seemed designed to disrupt the fledgling Black Power movement and put pressure on the BBC to withdraw the programme. Appearing on ITV, the Commissioner contended that the police were now faced with a militant fanaticism and that showing the programme may violate the sub judice rule. This last-ditch effort to suppress the programme by reference to an unrelated arrest only served to compound the public impression that the police had something to hide.

    With the programme returning to the BBC’s schedule, police tactics changed. Assistant Commissioner Robert Mark was given the task of representing the police in the live discussion following the documentary. In his memoirs, Mark describes the documentary as ‘one of the most inaccurate and distorted films ever to find its way on to a BBC screen’. His only evidence of inaccuracy related to a white building worker who appeared in the first minutes of the film and whose case had been included, no doubt, to show that the white working class were also victims of police malpractice. Mark complained that the BBC had failed to mention his previous convictions for carrying offensive weapons or that a policeman had received £100 in compensation for criminal injuries arising from his last arrest.

    Mark managed to track down the officer who had been injured during the white builder’s arrest and turned up at the BBC studio determined to present him as a witness for examination and cross-examination during the live discussion. Howe and the other civilian witnesses who were waiting in a hospitality room to go on air were told by a nervous BBC technician that the police were insisting on introducing the new witness. When they protested that this would exhaust the time allotted for the discussion of police racism, they were told by the BBC that Mark and the police had threatened to withdraw from the programme if they were not permitted to call their witness. The police tactics were bold. By ensuring that the live discussion was taken up with the one detail of the programme which did not concern police racism, they would seek to undermine the credibility of the documentary in the public mind without permitting any discussion of the film’s substantive allegations against the police.

    Howe, Macdonald and the others quickly devised a strategy. They told the technician that they were there to discuss matters concerning black people and that the issue of the white worker was peripheral to this; nonetheless, they were prepared to go on air. Howe describes the strategy that they had agreed upon in the hospitality room:

    Neither the BBC nor the police were told what our trump card would be. We decided to continue the struggle to have the witness removed in full view of the millions who had tuned into the programme. We would expose the history of police attempts to have the film banned and their latest manoeuvre would be explained in that context. Should they persist with their demand, we would walk out of the studio at a prearranged signal.

    When the studio discussion went on air and the police persisted in their demand to call their witness, Howe gave the signal and began to lead the walkout. Conscious of how this was playing out to the watching millions, Reg Gale of the Police Federation relented and the police agreed to engage in a proper discussion of the film’s contents. Selma James watched the programme with Ian Macdonald’s family and described the moment when Darcus got up and proposed to leave as ‘extraordinary. . . . What was so fantastic is that it was utterly uncompromising and for a good cause.’ Howe remembers the moment as ‘electric ’ and says that he was working from instinct and in a way that expressed his political attitude.

    Having defeated police attempts to railroad the discussion, point after point went in favour of the civilian participants and against the police. Mark’s attempts to argue that the cases highlighted within the film were as a result of a few rotten apples, which any institution was bound to contain and against which the black community was protected by the complaints system, were powerfully challenged and refuted by the black participants. Police brutality and harassment, they claimed, was not isolated and fragmented but rampant and pervasive. What was more, the complaints system, with police investigating police, was a sham in which black victims had no hope of redress. One memorable moment occurred when a young black activist from Notting Hill concluded his contribution by stating, ‘The police must stop framing and brutalising blacks or the black community will organise to stop them’. Amid his sweeping attacks on the BBC for making the documentary and ‘the mixed bag of the opposition’ the police faced, Mark’s memoirs say little about the substantive debate other than conceding that he ‘didn’t think anybody won’ and that his reception at Scotland Yard after the programme was ‘mixed.’

    The fact that the programme was shown at all was a breakthrough for the black community. Howe describes the tremendous strength and boost in confidence that the documentary gave to activists, in that it showed that the police armour could be penetrated through direct action and a determined campaign. Following the documentary, the popular Left journal Black Dwarf reprinted the entire transcript of the programme, thereby enabling those engaged in the struggle against police racism to reach out to wider sections of the Left.

    For Howe himself, the lessons were no less profound. His tactical intervention had outflanked the Assistant Commissioner and Metropolitan Police in front of a live audience of millions. A struggle begun on the pavement outside the BBC Studios had been taken on to the live programme and had exposed the police’s underhand attempts to first ban the film and then curtail the live discussion of its contents. These were to prove valuable lessons, which Howe would not forget when he was conducting his own defence in the Mangrove trial 3 years later. Howe’s dignified challenge to the proceedings during the debate had produced an extraordinary moment of dramatic and compelling television. In this sense, Cause for Concern gave him his first experience of the political power of television, an experience that would inform his career with Channel 4 decades later.

    Robin Bunce and Paul Field are the authors of Darcus Howe: A Political Biography, published by Bloomsbury. A £20 discount and free P&P is available to all New Statesman readers who purchase the book through the Bloomsbury website. The discount code is for NS readers is DARCUS20.

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    Virginia Woolf wrote that the most striking sentence she read in literature was "Chloe liked Olivia". In games, what would the equivalent be?

    The Bechdel Test, proposed by Alison Bechdel in her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, is a pretty simple way of looking at female representation in films and television. In the strip, a character says she has three criteria to judge whether she will watch a film:

    1. It has to have at least two women in it,

    2. who talk to each other,

    3. about something besides a man.

    Earlier on Twitter, I saw a suggestion for an updating of the test to videogames:

    Bartley has previously explored the idea in a blogpost, where she considers other possibilities for a videogames test. Should we look at the point of view - how many games allow you to play as a female character? Or should we look at what roles there are for women in games (Bartley says that she included the second two criteria because female characters are often a "helpless princess" or "object of desire")?

    Games writer Laura Kate Dale also proposed an update:

    Both of these are interesting starting points, although neither quite captures the spirit of the original - that "click" when you realise that in TV and films, the main character is usually male, and usually at the centre of a web of relationships with him. Women don't get to be at the centre of the web very often, and so end up being mothers, daughters, sisters, love interests. The idea that women might have an independent existence is still utterly alien.

    Nonetheless, I wondered idly which of last year's bestselling games would past the two tests proposed above.

    1. Hahahahahahaha. Although I suppose that Franklin's aunt and her friend talk about their exercise regime a fair bit. And there was a woman in the ads - in a bikini, sucking a lollipop. Empowerment.

    2. This is Call Of Duty: Ghosts, in case the deeply generic palette and scenario confused you. It is, unsurprisingly, something of a man's world.

    3. I haven't played Fifa, but I'm guessing there probably aren't that many female characters in it. Just guessing.

    In fairness, things aren't so manly all the way down the rest of the top ten list (Pokemon X&Y; Assassin's Creed Black Flag; The Last of Us; Animal Crossing New Leaf; Tomb Raider; Monster Hunter IV; Bioshock Infinite) although I'm racking my brains for a conversation between Elizabeth and Daisy Fitzroy in Bioshock Infinite, or indeed Elizabeth and any other woman. Unsurprisingly, Tomb Raider does well on whatever measure you use: the new Lara Croft is a dab hand with a bow, and there are other female characters on the expedition with her. 

    One of the problems with applying the test to games is that they are so diverse: the medium takes in Solitaire (a hotbed of misogyny, obviously - why is the King worth more than the Queen, eh?) and Candy Crush (riven with stereotypes about sweets, not to mention fat-shaming)*. Some games don't have characters at all; others have non-humans (although, from the voice actors used, I think all the dragons in Skyrim are male; no wonder they died out).

    For me, the perfect games Bechdel test would go some way towards capturing the spirit of the original by being about relationships between women. It won't be relevant for lots of games, both indie and commercial, and that's fine. But there are enough games now with well developed characters, storylines and dialogues for the right test to say something meaningful. 

    Bechdel has recently written that she believes the idea originally came from Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own, where the author registers surprise at reading the sentence "Chloe liked Olivia". 

    “Chloe liked Olivia,” I read. And then it struck me how immense a change was there. Chloe liked Olivia perhaps for the first time in literature. Cleopatra did not like Octavia. And how completely Antony and Cleopatra would have been altered had she done so! As it is, I thought, letting my mind, I am afraid, wander a little from Life’s Adventure, the whole thing is simplified, conventionalised, if one dared say it, absurdly. Cleopatra’s only feeling about Octavia is one of jealousy. Is she taller than I am? How does she do her hair? The play, perhaps, required no more.

    But how interesting it would have been if the relationship between the two women had been more complicated. All these relationships between women, I thought, rapidly recalling the splendid gallery of fictitious women, are too simple. So much has been left out, unattempted. And I tried to remember any case in the course of my reading where two women are represented as friends. There is an attempt at it in Diana of the Crossways. They are confidantes, of course, in Racine and the Greek tragedies. They are now and then mothers and daughters. But almost without exception they are shown in their relation to men…

    Also, I continued, looking down at the page again, it is becoming evident that women, like men, have other interests besides the perennial interests of domesticity. “Chloe liked Olivia. They shared a laboratory together…” I read on and discovered that these two young women were engaged in mincing liver, which is, it seems, a cure for pernicious anaemia: although one of them was married and had—I think I am right in stating—two small children. Now all that, of course, has had to be left out, and thus the splendid portrait of the fictitious woman is much too simple and much too monotonous. Suppose, for instance, that men were only represented in literature as the lovers of women, and were never the friends of men, soldiers, thinkers, dreamers; how few parts in the plays of Shakespeare could be allotted to them: how literature would suffer!”

    This focus on relationships between women is vital, because a rising number of female roles doesn't necessarily equate to better female roles. (I wrote about this in relation to Star Trek here: give me an impulsive female spaceship captain and her coldly analytical female first officer!) Recently, I've been watching Elementary, the CBS version of the Sherlock Holmes story, where Holmes is played by Johnny Lee Miller and Dr Joan Watson by Lucy Liu. 

    Liu's Dr Watson is a former surgeon, who lost a patient, and then her medical licence. She now works as a "sober companion", and is assigned to look after the recovering heroin addict Holmes. At the end of the first series, she has a properly crackling interaction with a female villain, who is trying to do the whole Black Widow vamp thing (complete with updo and killer stilettos) and allude darkly to how she could kiiiiill her in a crowded restaurant. And Watson just looks at her, unimpressed. Yeah, whatever. Course you could. Is that the dessert menu?

    It's an interaction that wouldn't have the same fizz if the two characters weren't both female. More than that, Watson's deep loyalty to Holmes feels fresh because she's his friend . . . not her prospective boyfriend, or her unrequited love. Just her friend. (Seriously, there is less sexual tension between them than between Cumberbatch and Freeman in the BBC's version. After the Bones Hook-Up That Shall Not Be Mentioned, that's bizarrely refreshing.)

    So, anyway, that's what I want from a Videogames Bechdel Test. A sense of women with independent lives, talking to other women. Maybe then shooting them in the face, or running away from zombie hordes hand in hand. Or just even keeping a really, really well maintained vegetable plot together.

    How many games out now would pass that kind of test? 



    * I am really looking forward to angry comments from people who don't get that this is a joke.

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    A subject as complex as Mandela deserves a film that will weigh into the grey areas, and while Idris Elba is the best Mandela yet, there's still some way to go in telling the story of his life.

    “Did they make the film ages and ages ago and only bring it out when he died?” Pause. A penny dropping. “Did they kill him so the film would be more popular?” That was my 13-year-old last week contemplating the posters on the Underground for Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. Out of the mouths of babes, eh? But no. On this occasion I would say she is clear of the mark. Even with Harvey Weinstein’s name on the film’s credits as executive producer, I shouldn’t think there was any subterfuge or scurrilousness involved in the timing of the release only weeks after Nelson Mandela’s death.

    This is a movie that had to be made at some point, if only because Mandela has been so spectacularly ill-served by cinema to date. Goodbye Bafana was an insult to his name, based on a memoir by one of the Robben Island prison guards that both Mandela and his own biographer had denounced as bogus, and characterised by a white perspective on apartheid that rendered black South Africans as mere extras in their own story. Clint Eastwood’s Invictus, which dealt with President Mandela’s morale-boosting embrace of the national rugby team, the Springboks, was not much better. Both films were sentimental trifles. A figure as influential and complex as Mandela deserved at least some kind of interrogation.

    He doesn’t quite get that in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom either, but at least the breadth and shape of the movie allows for a more full-blooded interpretation by Idris Elba in the title role than either Dennis Haysbert (in Goodbye Bafana) or Morgan Freeman (in Invictus) had the chance to attempt. The film is in every way an orthodox biopic, mapping out its subject’s life chronologically and with only glancing asides to anything of a controversial nature. Even accepting that a two-and-a-half-hour movie cannot squeeze in every incident of note, the brief reference to the brutal practices of the “Mandela United Football Club”, Winnie Mandela’s ANC bullyboys, feels like something of a slur on the life of 14-year-old Stompie Moeketsi, murdered on Mrs Mandela’s watch. (She was convicted of “negligence.”) For all that Naomie Harris underplays delicately, the simplistic nature of the biopic structure enables her to emerge from the movie resembling a Blaxploitation ass-kicker.

    From the opening visual cliché—the camera following the young Mandela through a sun-dappled field—to the endless montages that compress historical uprisings and massacres into digestible pellet form, the movie is hamstrung by its chosen form. Luckily it has Elba, who can convey in one loaded look several pages’ worth of pathos, inner conflict, stoicism or resolve. Unfortunately the biopic is not the place to explore the contradictions in a beloved public figure; what Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom ends up doing is flattering and sanctifying its subject. Mandela deserves better than kisses and compliments. So does the audience.

    Unless a filmmaker opts for the impressionistic approach, the best this genre can hope for is a Reader’s Digest abridgement, a pulped and potted novelisation. “Film is incredibly conventional,” the screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce has said. “The three-act structure, the hero’s journey—it’s as tight as a sonnet. And life isn’t like that. So you have two choices. You can chop up the life to fit the structure. Or you can do what I prefer, which is to throw the life up against it and make the structure collapse ... If you want to celebrate the complexity of a human being, you’ve got to bust it all open ... It’s important to challenge the idea that there’s only one interpretation. I mean, there might be a definitive truth about the partition of Poland, but not about a human being.”

    Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is on release.

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    Celebrities these days are quickly pigeonholed into the narrow binary of “feminist” or “not a feminist”.

    This article originally appeared on

    If 2013 can bear one more label, let's call it the year that everyone and her mom was hailed as a feminist until the word got as tired as any internet trope. The New Year followed suit with a piece Monday on The Atlantic's website about the enduring cult of Bettie Page, the 1950s pin-up icon who paved the way for modern porn. Marveling at the fact that female fans rather than drooling men have kept Page’s legend alive, the author quotes a culture critic beaming, “She was a sex-positive feminist before the classification even existed.” Page was, it’s true, enthusiastically appropriated by the sex-positive feminists of the ‘90s. But there's no evidence that she was a feminist, sex-positive or otherwise, herself. She was risqué, and independent for a woman of her day, but “feminist” is not a synonym for “hard-nosed or interesting woman.”

    But the fourth estate seems to have the opposite impression: We’ve taken to measuring everything and everyone against the feminist yardstick. At the time of this writing, one of Google’s top hits for the search “feminism” is the Slate post, “Is the Weasley Family From Harry Potter Feminist?” In November, Rawiya Kameir argued at The Daily Beast, “Beyoncé is as much of a feminist as Rihanna who is as much of a feminist as Lorde who is as much of a feminist as Gaga and Nicki Minaj.” Maybe, in a private sense, this is true: Feminism, says Merriam-Webster, is “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes,” and I fully hope this is something the aforementioned women believe. But in a public sense, Nicki Minaj is a rapper, an artist, a commercial icon who wants to break through hip-hop’s billionaire ceiling – but not a feminist, a person devoted to leveling the playing field between women and men. Calling Beyoncé’s latest album a “feminist manifesto,” on the other hand, made sense. The song “Flawless” is about how, to quote a line, “we teach girls to shrink themselves”; critics didn’t have to stretch the word like a piece of old gum to make it apply.

    Maybe the “Is She a Feminist?” test is something to celebrate. After all, it feels like a punch in the gut every time a woman in power goes out of her way to say she is not a feminist (cough cough, Marissa Mayer). Feminist witch-hunting happens all the time – a Politico Magazine piece about "feminist nightmare" Michelle Obama comes to mind – so what’s wrong with a few feminist baptisms? The takeaway from a scuffle between teen queens Lorde and Selena Gomez, for example, is that both of them are feminists! The bad blood began when Lorde complained about one of Gomez’s hits, “I’m a feminist and the theme of her song is, ‘When you’re ready come and get it from me’... I’m sick of women being portrayed this way.” Gomez fired back, “That’s not feminism. [Lorde is] not supporting other women.” Maybe it’s a good sign that every glitterista recycling metaphors about 16-year-old boys feels pressure to let her young fans know she believes in girl power. But it seems more like a tic that is reducing one of our most important ideas to something malleable and devoid of meaning.

    Take Bettie Page. A piece Margaret Talbot wrote about her legacy for The New Republic in 1997 (available to subscribers here) dismisses feminist attempts to commandeer the pin-up princess, scoffing, “Some of Bettie Page's fans will tell you that the reason her photographs appeal to so many people today is that she was a woman more of our time than of hers, a sexual liberationist trapped in Ozzie-and-Harriet land.” But she doesn’t dismiss our captivation with Page. “In truth her pictures attract us precisely because they are so much of their time . . . Bettie Page always seemed so good when she was being so bad. It is a paradox made of distinctions that we have almost completely destroyed.”

    Sure, it would be great if every woman were a feminist. But it would not be great if the only question we asked ourselves about any given woman was, “Is she a feminist?” The binary is too narrow for the word's complex history. And that single measure – though important – can only capture so much of any woman, or artist, or public figure. In the meantime, wrangling over the feminist credentials of a singer or model who has barely expressed interest in women's empowerment is just noise.

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    The documentary series shows residents of a Birmingham street in what they consider an unfair light - and now the internet wants them punished.

    Channel 4 aired welfare documentary Benefits Street last night. According to the blurb:

    [A]s austerity continues to bite, jobs remain hard to come by and benefits are squeezed, this observational documentary series reveals the reality of life on benefits, as the residents of one of Britain's most benefit-dependent streets invite cameras into their tight-knit community.

    That community consists of the people living in the 99 houses on James Turner Street in Winson Green Birmingham, of which some are unemployed, and some are in work. “This is a place where people look out for each other and where small acts of kindness can go a long way,” Channel 4’s blurb says, which makes it sound like the show was sympathetic to the reality of life under austerity.

    Instead, here’s the Mirror today:

    In the show, residents of James Turner Street struggle to cope with cuts to their benefits. There's a man who goes around, door-to-door, selling small quantities of essentials like sugar and washing powder for 50p, and many residents can't even afford that. While looking for jobs many of the residents have nothing to do with their time other than smoke, drink, or (in a couple of cases) take drugs. There's a lot of focus on one man, who gets out of jail and heads off into the city centre to shoplift some designer jeans on the very same day. James Turner Street comes across as bleak.

    However, several of the participants are furious at how their lives were depicted. Here’s Dee Roberts:

    She said: “They have shown me pointing at houses shouting ‘unemployed, on benefits’, but they haven’t shown me pointing at the houses where I knew people were working and in jobs.

    "I’m really worried about how my neighbours will react if they see it.

    “They have edited everything to suit their own needs – taken a positive and turned it into a negative.”

    Dee, who is unemployed and on benefits, was approached to appear on the show at a jobseeker event in Birmingham.

    Another particpant, Becky Howe, has said “half of my family and friends have already disowned” her because of how the show was edited to make their home look like “slums”.

    Judging from Twitter, people responded angrily to the show's decision to focus on benefits fraud, petty crime, and financial insecurity. Mark McGowan, an artist who tweets under the name @chunkymark, gathered dozens upon dozens of tweets from those watching the show:

    That’s just a sample. You can understand why the participants might feel they have to protect themselves from this hatred.

    Several of those featured in the show - a five-part series, the next part airing next Monday - now have jobs. Here's Channel 4's response to the complaints from the participants:

    “This is a fair and balanced observational documentary series.

    “It is a fair reflection of the reality of life on a street where the majority of households receive benefits.

    “The contributors were briefed extensively before any filming took place. If any residents requested not to be filmed they were not.

    “The main contributors have been offered the opportunity to view the programmes they feature in before transmission to make any comments about their contributions.

    “As far as we are aware we have appropriate consent for any private phone calls that appear in the series.”

    We hope that further episodes of the series improve in depicting the lives of the poor in a way that doesn't confirm the worst prejudices of the right's ridiculous 'scrounger vs striver' rhetoric. Judging from the comments underneath the Mirror's article, there's a long way to go in correcting those misbeliefs.

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    Increased visibility of mentally ill people can only serve to highlight problems and break taboos, but for the most part this is a stultifying trend.

    For a while now, I’ve been watching the growth of a macabre trend. Depression chic has been creeping into the mainstream for many years. 2014 marks the twentieth birthday of Prozac Nation, the book that (perhaps inadvertently) transformed a debilitating mental illness into a veritable rock star. I’m not sure the Urban Outfitters “Depression” t-shirt was intended as a celebration of two decades of fluoxetine being fabulous, but it almost seems that way.

    In the creative world, depression has always been as ubiquitous as sex and drugs. From Virginia Woolf to Kurt Cobain; literature, art and music are all strewn with breakdowns, burnouts and suicides. But only in the past few years has depression truly made the leap from illness to accessory. In Lars von Trier’s 2011 film, Melancholia, Kirsten Dunst’s portrayal of a clinically depressed woman was both skilful and graphic. Incidentally, Dunst has spoken frankly about her real-life struggle with depression. Similarly, Claire Danes, who plays the bipolar Carrie Mathison in Homeland, has contended with mental illness. Increasingly, depression is understood as something that affects the glamorous. The fashion label “Depression”, who are responsible for Urban Outfitters’ most controversial garment, have capitalised on this. “Hey look - all the cool kids are depressed”.

    On the one hand, increased visibility of mentally ill people can only serve to highlight problems and break taboos. It would be cruel of me not to applaud the likes of Danes and Dunst for opening up about their depression, and even more so if I were to suggest that their accounts are disingenuous. And yet, instead of being used to understand and relate to mental illness, these confessionals are being moulded into an extremely damaging aesthetic.

    In fashion, problematic trends like “heroin chic” – most famously worn by Kate Moss and Pete Doherty – come and go. Like drug addiction, depression has been glamorised and fetishized into something wearable. And, in a sense, depressives are the new junkies. While we once watched coked-up stars meander in and out of rehab, the mental breakdown has recently become far more of a focus – particularly in young women. Actress Amanda Bynes’s erratic behaviour and public “meltdowns” have rendered her tabloid fodder. While garish headlines reduce Bynes to a jabbering loon, they also (perversely) feed into the concept of depression chic. Young female Hollywood types are almost expected to go through a mental breakdown phase. Last year, depressive tweets by Miley Cyrus led to inevitable and disingenuously concerned speculation about her mental health.

    I’ve been familiar with depression since early adolescence. I’ve searched my antidepressant-soothed brain for the best words to describe the illness and the only ones I can come up with for now are “fucking” and “awful.” To see a condition that takes lives reduced to a word on a t-shirt is almost more bizarre than it is upsetting. I wonder if a t-shirt with the word “cancer” on it would have made it into a high street shop. Urban Outfitters may have pulled their offensive t-shirt, but I have a feeling that depression chic is far from over.

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    Thanks to the dearth of court reporters, Nigella Lawson's trial is one of the few you will ever hear of.

    The Southport Visiter carries a regular column, which can leave you in no doubt of its contents. It's called "Look Who's In Court."

    The archaic spelling of the paper's name hints at its age, it is one of the UK's oldest publications, having first gone on sale in 1848. It has had time to develop a keen sense of what interests its readers.

    Southport is the sort of town where there are still net curtains to twitch and "Look Who's In Court" appeals to the twitchers.

    We abolished the pillory in 1837, perhaps the emergence of newspapers like the Visiter shortly afterward filled a gap in the market.

    Is it fair that people should be held up for public ridicule, scorn and condemnation in this way? There are growing voices that say no.

    They say that this publicity, coupled with internet publication that amplifies the damage done, is not right.

    We saw this before Christmas when Nigella Lawson had her private life very publicly exposed when she was a witness in the trial of the Grillo sisters, former PAs to her and her ex-husband Saatchi.

    The spectacle was fascinating to court-watchers, but no doubt deeply unpleasant for Nigella, who said afterward that she had not been able to counter some of the allegations being made about her and her family during the trial.

    There was even the suggestion that witnesses in trials should have the right to counsel in the court. An interesting idea to float when cuts to Legal Aid have seen barristers on strike this week. One imagines that such counsel will not be provided by the public purse and will therefore only be available to witnesses like Nigella who have the wherewithal to pay them.

    There are many who feel the same way, be they defendants, or witnesses, in trials, who have aspects of their lives examined and cross-examined at length, then duly reported by whoever happens to be sitting on the press bench.

    Sometimes they try to prevent such reporting. This is what happened in the case of Asha and Kashif Khan, who were accused of perverting the course of justice over a plan to help their father evade a speeding fine. Asha was convicted, her brother was acquitted, but a request to ban reporting of the case was initially granted by the judge, in York, on the grounds that the pair would be shamed in the eyes of their community.

    It took a two-day challenge by the Daily Mail to have the order overturned and the case reported properly.

    The Khans are by no means the first to try this tack. Prison officers charged with fraud have tried to use fear of retribution to have their details kept from the public gaze. Ex-husbands worried about retribution from vengeful exes have also asked that their address be kept out of the papers.

    It is almost invariably the press, if they are there, who fight these restrictions. And that is the real point – if they are there. The Mail was interested in the Khans’ case, but most of the time they will not make the trip to the provinces or use agency copy unless it is a major story.

    Open reporting of the regional courts requires papers to do as the Visiter does and let them know daily or weekly, just who is in court. But for years now regional papers have cut back on staff, or even disappeared as titles entirely – just before Christmas they closed my old paper, the Liverpool Daily Post.

    Without journalists fighting restrictive orders, defendants can happily avoid unpleasant publicity. And if the papers no longer send to court they grant de facto secrecy that they would no doubt object to if it were imposed by a judge.

    The court reporter occupies the press bench for your entertainment, nothing else. Sure, they fulfil a useful role in a democracy of ensuring the open reporting of justice, but that is a by-product of their main effort, which is to give you something you are prepared to read. If readers are no longer interested – and that is a belief that has been growing for some time among editors – then there is no point in them sending their reporters there.

    While Nigella will always command a packed press bench, other less celebrity-packed trials will attract less attention, or none at all.

    Ultimately the danger to the open reporting of the courts is not secretive defendants seeking restrictive orders from compliant judges, but our indifference.

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    As the "year of hard truths" gets under way, remember that politicians mean something entirely different when they speak of "hard choices".

    It can’t be easy being George Osborne. Nearly four years he's been Chancellor, plugging away, cutting everything in sight – yet here he is, an election looming, and everything's still so hard.

    In the Autumn Statement he talked of "hard choices", before this week declaring 2014 to be the “year of hard truths". In the past he's also offered “tough decisions”, “difficult decisions”, "tough choices" . . . All in all it's clear he wants us to know that, however much he may seem to relish the unpleasant job of slashing the state, he's actually finding it all incredibly difficult.

    So what are the hard decisions he's making to keep Britain on the path to growth? He's trying to cut the deficit. He's hacking away at the welfare budget (not pensions, mind). He's "reducing taxes for hardworking people" (bad luck, lazy ones) and "creating more jobs by backing business" (more tax cuts, one assumes).

    By a staggering coincidence, these are exactly the sorts of things that he got into politics to do. More to the point, they load all the pain onto the young and poor, while sparing the rich, the old, and anyone else disproportionately likely to vote Tory. These choices are about as hard as jelly. The only hard bit is keeping a straight face as he tells us how hard he's finding it all.

    Whenever politicians start talking about how tough they’re being, in fact, it’s like a flashing neon arrow pointing down the path of least resistance. If a policy actually requires guts, the last thing you want to do is draw attention to the fact, as that’ll just tip your voters off that someone’s about to get stiffed. Better, then, to reserve the label for making yourself feel big while doing exactly what you wanted to do anyway.

    It'd be nice to imagine that this is a phenomenon that started with Osborne. But as with so many of his policies (an unbalanced economy, a reliance on banking, a strange desire to make housing as expensive as possible), it's a trick he picked up from those he claims to despise. As far back as 1997, Gordon Brown was promising not to postpone the "hard choices" required for Britain to enter the Euro, before, in the next breath, saying that it was a waste of time because it almost certainly wasn't going to anyway. Six years later Brown took the "tough decision" to spend another £1 billion on his beloved child tax credit.

    The summer of 2009 found Brown's protégé Ed Balls, then schools secretary, arguing that, with the help of “tough choices, we can see real rises in the schools budget and the NHS budget in future years". In other words, if the Treasury would only be tough enough to cut everyone else’s budgets, then Balls' would be tough enough to duck his share of the pain – impressing, as a nifty side effect, some of the unions who'd have a vote in the next Labour leadership contest. Such noble self-sacrifice can bring a tear to your eye.

    Which brings us back to Osborne. The strategy he's laid out undoubtedly is going to be tough – for the young, the unemployed, those who rely on public services, even Ian Duncan Smith. But they'll be remarkably easy to bear for anyone who could help deliver Osborne’s real goal of a Tory election victory.

    A genuinely tough decision would involve saying that housing costs are damagingly high, and that house prices need to come down; that pensioners will take their share the pain; that cutting the deficit will require contributions from rich, as well as poor. Osborne, strangely, declined to do any of that. He hasn’t said a single thing that might alienate a potential Tory voter.

    Early reports suggest that the pre-released draft of Osborne’s speech had described 2014 as “the year of hard choices” – that the “year of hard truths” was a last minute substitute. Perhaps someone had pointed out that his strategy didn’t merit the earlier label. It doesn’t cost the Chancellor, it doesn’t cost his friends, and it doesn’t cost his voters. His choices are not hard. It’s not even clear they’re choices.

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    Unlike her monetarist predecessors, the first female chair of the Federal Reserve puts tackling unemployment on an equal footing with fighting inflation.

    There seems to be a consensus that this has been a good and bad year for feminism. Well sisters, listen up, because it’s time to celebrate.  According to a Radio 4 profile by Mary Anne Sieghart, a woman is now the first or second most powerful person in the world (depending on the relative power you attribute to Angela Merkel). And the Atlantic has described her as the most powerful woman in American history.  

    How’s that for progress? Let’s all raise a glass in congratulations to Janet Yellen, the first female chair of the US Federal Reserve. We should be clear: this is a major break-through. No woman in history has ever chaired any of the world’s leading domestic financial institutions. The Bank of England, the European Central Bank, the Bundesbank, the Fed: all men, for all of history. When her term begins in February, against that backdrop, there will be Janet.

    Whatever your economic standpoint about the role of central bankers in the microeconomic challenges we all face – paying for the shopping, affording next year’s holiday – surely it matters that there is one less hallowed, powerful, lofty position for which women are yet to be deemed qualified? So what might we expect from the Fed’s new chair?

    Yellen hails from an economic tradition that sees the economist’s role as deeply connected to the concerns of ordinary individuals, having gained her PhD with James Tobin at Yale. As President Obama said yesterday, "The American people will have a fierce champion who understands that the ultimate goal of economic and financial policymaking is to improve the lives, jobs and standard of living of American workers and their families."

    The current incumbent, Ben Bernanke, is a monetarist, building on the foundations of Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz. They see the role of government in the economy being to appropriately control the money supply to provide price stability. Inflation is the target, no matter what the impact on individuals within the economy.   

    In contrast, Yellen is certainly a progressive. She chaired Bill Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisers late in his term of office. Her critics from the left might argue that Wall Street’s apparent ease and, in some quarters, enthusiasm for Yellen’s appointment does not augur well for a tougher approach to regulation, though this probably stems as much from Yellen being a known actor already within the Fed, as opposed to a Fed outsider choice such as Larry Summers. But as we’ve seen with George Osborne’s approach to financial services regulation, and his defence of the bonus culture, the battle for a well-regulated global financial services industry is far from won.

    As a highly distinguished labour market economist, Yellen authored work on the interplay between wage rates, unemployment, and what we might now term underemployment. Of course, this is now a major challenge in the US and European economies. At the Fed itself, she has been successful in placing unemployment on an equal footing with fighting inflation as a macro-economic target. And according to Time magazine, she’s a numbers person, setting high regard for evidence over orthodoxy. And when the orthodoxy has so conclusively failed, surely change is a good thing.  

    Alison McGovern is Labour MP for Wirral South, shadow minister for international development, and studied economics at Birkbeck College

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    Reporting to the Director of Events, you will help deliver a wide range of events including conferences, awards, fringe events and receptions.

    The New Statesman is hiring an Events Manager who will be responsible for working with the Events Team to deliver the Progressive Media annual programme of events; with a particular focus on New Statesman as well as the design titles Blueprint and FX.

    This a full-time paid job based in our office in Blackfriars, with a salary to be determined depending on experience.

    The successful candidate will be passionate and enthusiastic about events with strong attention to detail and organisational skills. They will be experienced in delivering a range of events including conferences, awards, fringe events and receptions. A political or public affairs background would be advantageous. The Events Manager will report to the Director of Events, liaise with the editorial and sales teams and work closely with the Partnerships and Events Assistant to deliver the programme.

    The ideal candidate will:

    • Coordinate and deliver all events within set timescales and budgets
    • Provide creative input, initiate new ideas and discuss themes to engage with the appropriate target audience
    • Work in conjunction with the TV/Film crew, digital, PR and brand/marketing teams to ensure the events reach maximum potential in terms of brand awareness and audience reach
    • Brief/source/liaise and manage appropriate third party suppliers
    • Carry out all event administrative duties,
    • Be present on site and project management during the set up/event and de-rig periods

    Please apply with a CV and a covering letter to Andy Pilbeam, Recruitment Manager, Progressive Digital Media Group by Friday 31 January at 5pm.

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    Another day, another study misrepresented as causing our brains to change in some mysterious, irreversible way.

    Is reading a book a way to get a short-term intelligence top-up? That’s the implication of a study by an Emory University team of neuroscientists, led by Gregory Berns. The Independent reported this as evidence that reading a novel can lead to a “boost” in brain function for “days” afterwards, while the LA Timessays it means books “exercise muscles in the brain” so effectively that it can be detected for up to five days afterwards.

    The study in question - “Short- and Long-Term Effects of a Novel on Connectivity in the Brain”, published in the journal Brain Connectivity in on 6 December (here’s the link) - isn’t quite as definitive as those headlines make out. It’s one of those instances where the media has fallen for the “[x] ‘rewires’ the brain” myth, one that’s as common (and as mistaken) as the “we only use ten percent of our brainpower” myth, or the “right brain/left brain” myth.

    Everything we do makes our thinking organ ‘rewire’ itself, as it works by forming new connections between neurons, creating new neural networks - it’s called neuroplasticity. Those panic stories that appear in the Mail claiming that Facebook/porn/violent movies/etc. are causing long-term damage to the brains of our children are based on the dodgy assumption that those activities cause the brain to reconfigure itself in a harmful way, and for it to then get stuck like that, like pulling a face when the wind changes. Nope, that’s not how it works.

    So, to the study. Here’s what it measured: 19 participants (not 21, as reported elsewhere) were scanned by an MRI machine over 19 days. There was a five day “wash-in” period to establish a baseline, nine days over which the participants read the novel, and a five day “wash-out” period to see how long changes were measured.

    The book, in this experiment, was Pompeii by Robert Harris. “This novel was chosen because it was based on true events but written as historical fiction and conveyed in a classic narrative arc,” Berns writes. It’s a book that ends with a massive volcano blowing up and everybody dying, so the plot has a pretty predictable build-up and climax that would hopefully show up in the brain scans - and, what do you know, they did:

    On the days after the reading, significant increases in connectivity were centered on hubs in the left angular/supramarginal gyri and right posterior temporal gyri. These hubs corresponded to regions previously associated with perspective taking and story comprehension, and the changes exhibited a timecourse that decayed rapidly after the completion of the novel.”

    Translation: bits of the brain that do language stuff changed, and started changing back after the book ended. That might seem to justify the idea of books being used to “boost” brain function, but don't be too hasty.

    Firstly, 19 participants is a tiny sample size, and secondly, there wasn’t a control group. Instead, “through repeated scans, each participant served as his or her own control to measure changes in resting-state connectivity after the consumption of the novel.” We can be relatively confident, because of this, that the changes in brain connectivity that were observed did happen - but we can’t be sure that it’s the books that caused it. The participants all went through similar experiences over 19 days, of which only a part was reading the same book.

    Maybe the changes observed are what happens when you get used to sitting inside a big machine once a day for three weeks. Or, maybe it’s what happens when you take a quiz every day, something that Berns considers in his conclusion:

    [Resting-state networks] are known to be altered by recent language comprehension tasks (Hasson et al., 2009) as well as visual categorization tasks (Stevens et al., 2010). Although the chapter readings were performed during the evenings before scans, the quizzes occurred just before the scan. The quizzes, therefore, might be responsible for such immediate changes in resting state, though the tasks differ in their orientation.”

    Let’s accept that it is the book that did it - what does it tell us? That a book about a volcano exploding, with a simple plot, changed the structure of a small part of the brains of a small group of people. It’s a leap to then assume that it would lead to a boost in mental ability - either when it comes to the parts of the brain where changes were seen, or across the whole brain.

    It also says nothing about what kinds of books cause the change. Is it all novels? Is non-fiction just as good? Is it a narrative that matters, or is experimental fiction just as useful? What about poetry, or fan fiction, or the comments section of YouTube? Or what about an article like the one you’re reading right now?

    Scientific discovery tends to be a gradual thing, taking place over many years with many people building up a combined body of knowledge. This study is interesting in that context - not in any kind of way that can be used to attribute magical powers to novels. As much as we may love our favourite books, that's a bit of a stretch.

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  • 01/07/14--10:04: Reviews round-up | 7 January
  • The critics' verdicts on Linda Colley's book on the union, David Gilbert's "& Sons" and Mark Bostridge's history of England at the outset of the First World War.

    Acts of Union: Acts of Disunion Linda Colley

    With the referendum on Scottish independence, looming on the horizon, Linda Colley’s Acts of Union: Acts of Disunion could be seen as a timely addition to the literary canon. The book focuses on what its title suggests – the disjointed way in which modern Britain has been created. However, having been adapted from a series of short talks that Colley did for BBC Radio 4, critics have not been universally pleased with the depth of the book.

    David Robinson of The Scotsman appears disappointed by the fact that although it is worth getting Colley’s "historical perspective on what kind of country Scots ought to aim at living in […] the fact that Scotland only takes up one out of her 15 short chapters means that we won’t get too many answers." Although obviously impressed with the argument that "Britain was forged together through war, Francophobia, Protestantism and commercial prosperity" and the idea of Britain being an unstable "state-nation" with no common identity, his criticism of what the book is lacking in content and form seems to outweigh his reflection on its merits.

    On the other hand, the Independent’s Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is hugely appreciative of Colley. Noting that she initially took issue with the length and depth of Acts of Union, feeling "the book was rushed, sparse and unsatisfactory", she states that on her second reading she began to fully understand "Colley's alchemic genius". Believing that the book’s pinpoint accuracy and demolition of "unreconstructed patriotisms, tight certainties, received notions and political manipulations" renders it a text to be admired, Alibhai-Brown is generous in her praise. Although she too has her own criticisms – specifically in the way in which the "monarchy is waved through and kneeled before" and a lack of recognition of historic ethnic diversity – like Robinson she is ultimately swayed by Colley’s depiction of an "unsettled nation".

    The Economist takes a similarly appreciative line on Colley’s book. Stating that "the themes it explores are universal: how national identities react to globalisation and migration", the paper focuses on the awareness brought to specific, yet generally unrecognised, aspects of British history. This includes Britain’s "mythical" history as a liberal country, its "islandhood" and subsequent colonialism, and the fact that its unions were "forged in a time of conflict with Europe". Despite their praises, the Economist does note, as Robinson seems to imply, that Colley is not necessarily as neutral a writer on the topic of union as she claims, "for the prescriptions she offers are designed to maintain some kind of union".

    & Sons, David Gilbert

    Although published back in July, David Gilbert’s & Sons has just started to take off in UK literary circles. Telling the story of aging novelist Andrew Newbold (A. N.) Dyer’s attempt to reunite his estranged family in the wake of a close friend’s funeral. The book is narrated by the deceased’s son – who manages to get caught up Dyer’s messy life as he brings his three sons into the embrace of New York City’s Upper East Side for a life-affirming reunion. Gilbert’s second published novel, & Sons has received mainly positive reviews.

    The Guardian’s Emma Brockes is particularly taken by the "charm" of "the unreliable narrator, Philip Topping," whom she insinuates is an interesting character. Her largest criticism of the novel is Gilbert’s tendency to focus on "surface details", stating that "Gilbert has to watch himself; he has been known to disappear, Alice-like, down rabbit holes of meaning." Equating this to his OCD, this flaw is forgiven however, with Brockes recognising Gilbert’s authentic knowledge of his hometown, New York City, and commenting on "a great scene in the Metropolitan Museum, where he spent a lot of his childhood".

    James Wood, writing in The New Yorker, amplifies the relationships Gilbert creates between his characters in relation to the novel that A. N. Dyer is famous for, Ampersand. Noting that the title of & Sons reflects Ampersand’s looming presence over the lives of AN Dyer’s sons, who are "struggling to establish a viable independence", Wood appears to admire Gilbert’s skill in weaving the metaphorical idea of the ampersand throughout the novel. He writes that one the novel’s "funniest and most biting scenes" is when Dyer’s oldest son thinks he has achieved success with a new script, but that soon it is revealed that the director's "real interest is in making a movie of Ampersand". Wood goes on to praise Gilbert’s "rich theme", stating that he "has a wonderfully sharp eye for the emotional reticence of the men of A. N. Dyer’s generation and class".

    In The Financial Times, Erica Wagner is similarly complimentary. The novel makes overt references to the similarities between A. N. Dyer and JD Salinger, author of Catcher in the Rye. Wagner believes that Gilbert has been successful in creating this comparison, calling the novel "much more than a satire on the New York literary and social world". As with Brockes, she too finds the character of Philip Topping praiseworthy, describing him as "engaging company and a fine storyteller". Wagner concludes by applauding the "reminder that all of us transform our lives into stories – and that every narrative comes at a cost."

    The Fateful Year: England 1914, Mark Bostridge

    It has been 100 years since the beginning of WWI, and as can be seen with the skein of books being published this year by authors such as Adam Tooze, Frank Furedi and Neil Astley, the Great War is still very much part of the national consciousness. In his new book, The Fateful Year: England 1914, Mark Bostridge tells the story of England at the beginning of the war in a unique way – focusing on the small, yet important, initial details of a disastrous conflict.

    In The Times, Lucy Hughes-Hallet’s descriptive review presents a positive recommendation of the book. She believes Bostridge’s main aim of the book is showing that "pre-war England was not as idyllic as popular tradition suggests", and approves of this message. However, Hallet also enjoys the "modest" and "humane" elements of the book. Stating that "Bostridge has a pleasantly off-hand way of introducing his major themes", Hallet is particularly pleased with what she deems an unromanticised depiction of the beginning of WWI.

    Lucy Lethbridge of the Financial Times also likes the way in which Bostridge "takes us through" 1914, using "details found in a range of diaries, letters, newspapers and memoirs". She comments that the way in which Bostridge "digs out stories behind the stories" and in effect personalises the world of 1914, makes it easier for the reader engage with the past. For Lethbridge, the book harnesses the tragedy of the war through showing the way it was foreshadowed, noting that the book is "a truly gripping chronicle of the mood of a nation moving unwittingly towards catastrophe."

    The Guardian’s Rachel Cooke finds The Fateful Year to be a refreshingly "idiosyncratic diary", commending Bostridge’s rich details, and attention to the "shadows and portents," of 1914. Like Lethbridge, Cooke is affected by the foreshadowing of the devastation of war, commenting on the "descriptions of paintings, music and poems that seem to predict the coming carnage" as "unnerving". However, Cooke goes on to offer her criticism of the book, stating that some "episodes feel misplaced" within the narrative, and suggests that "its primary engine was a desire to honour an important anniversary", rather than offer a genuinely new idea about WWI.

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    A deeper understanding of the purpose and direction of one's career is the way to true success.

    Do you wish you were more am­bitious, or less? It’s a question I’ve often asked myself without reaching a consistent answer. Does ambition compel you to fulfil your potential – is it the petrol in the tank? Or does it distort your focus towards the pursuit of shallower worldly success, distracting you from higher things?

    The question becomes complicated because ambition is bound up with subtly interconnected emotions. Ambition is not the same thing as competitiveness, but there is considerable overlap between the two. Nor is ambition exactly analogous with identifying and pursuing a vocation, though clearly the two ideas can be intertwined.

    As a cricketer, I found that my apparently deep personal ambition burned itself out surprisingly quickly. I was so hungry to succeed in my late teens and early twenties that I became bored with the psychological state relatively early. When many of my contemporaries were just getting serious, I was drifting elsewhere. My ambition was out of sync with my development. By the time I had become a rounded and mature player, I was more interested in life beyond the boundary.

    Looking back on the experience, I wonder whether playing cricket was ever a natural fit for me over the long term. Something in cricket hooked me, but I now suspect it was mainly the opportunity to succeed. I could play cricket and I had drive, so cricket became a conduit for my drive. It was like being introduced to a drug when you are going through an addictive phase. Addiction was inevitable, the drug of choice incidental. Yet aptitude, I learned the hard way, is not the same thing as vocation. Perhaps that is why, after cricket, I’ve been reluctant to get caught up in what many would call healthy professional ambition. I want to be sure before I get hooked.

    There is also a central difference between the two disciplines that have dominated my life, something fundamental that separates sport and writing. It is revealing that elite sportsmen often form natural and instinctive friendships with businessmen and entrepreneurs. The friendship between the Australian tycoon Kerry Packer and Shane Warne is just one example of many. Business and sport have much in common: an intuitive accommodation with risk, accompanied by the conviction that personal will­power will determine events, that self-belief is the first and most important domino in the causal chain. No wonder businesses routinely invite sportsmen to give lectures and presentations. Business sees sport as its outdoor cousin.

    In contrast, it is rare for sportsmen to have close friendships with artists, especially writers. This mutual suspicion makes perfect sense. Where sportsmen fear introspection, writers depend on it. History is dangerous territory for sportsmen: only tomorrow matters. For a writer, the past is everything. And where writers have time on their side, for athletes the sand in the hourglass is slipping away frighteningly fast.

    Athletes have to hone and nurture an almost adolescent faith in wish-fulfilment. I want to win, ergo I am going to win. If you become too balanced and reflective, it’s time to retire. I suspect artists have to train an opposite impulse: to allow their work to escape from over-rational prescriptiveness and self-control, to be set free. Bob Dylan once said, “Creativity is not like a freight train going down the tracks.” It can be willed and managed only to a certain degree. Openness, a receptivity to chance and uncertainty, is just as important as tenacity and deter­mination. Anyone who “decides” to write a great novel, as if it were exactly the same as training for a marathon, may as well have decided to write a not-great novel.

    And journalism? I once witnessed a long, private conversation between the head of a well-known public institution and the most respected journalist in the same field. What struck me – and what seemed so unusual – was that neither man tried to pursue an agenda with the other. The journalist did not ask for confidential information; the administrator neither explicitly nor implicitly sought preferential coverage in return for leaks or gossipy titbits. Instead, they exchanged unguarded views, information and insights. The less they asked of each other, the more forthcoming they became. As a result, by the end of the evening, both had a better understanding of the other’s brief.

    Surely this simple story has nothing to do with ambition – it is just a matter of trust and integrity? No, not entirely. The central point is that neither man needed any further advancement in his job. They had long transcended narrowly defined professional ambition. The writer was ambivalent about a pat on the back from his editor; the administrator was indifferent to goodies from the board. Each sensed in the other a different kind of ambition: to understand the wider picture, not just the demands of tomorrow.

    Neither man had the “hunger” and “drive” that every management cliché claims are central to success. Hunger and drive had evolved into something more subtle – the pursuit of independence, the ability to live and work without incurring debts or making false promises. One form of ambition is seeking a state of autonomy.

    I’ve often sensed that my conventionally driven acquaintances are critical of an apparent absence of ambition in others – a reluctance to climb the ladder, to hold office, to “get on”. Conversely, I see a distinct lack of ambition in them: their preparedness to give up so much time to tasks they do not enjoy, the thousands of hours spent in meetings nodding along at non sequiturs, the endurance of boredom on a epic scale, a familiarity with airport lounges.

    Perhaps one dimension of real ambition is the preparedness to ask if it is uncorrelated with mere success.

    Ed Smith’s latest book is “Luck: a Fresh Look at Fortune” (Bloomsbury, £8.99)

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

    1. Britain cannot afford to be the friendless pariah of Europe (Daily Telegraph)

    A country increasingly unsure of its role and standing should be embracing its allies, writes Mary Riddell. 

    2. A separate NHS tax would rein in spending (Times)

    We can’t go on pouring more and more into healthcare, writes Daniel Finkelstein. Voters must be made aware of the real cost.

    3. George Osborne is not the only one who will cut welfare. The numbers can’t add up otherwise (Independent)

    Even two more years of decent growth will not close the gap in the public finances, writes Hamish McRae.

    4. The return of dynastic wealth (Financial Times)

    In a world with more inherited riches, it makes no sense to cut estate taxes, says Robin Harding.

    5. Has Osborne got the bottle for cuts? (Daily Telegraph)

    The Chancellor promises to trim £12bn off welfare in the next parliament – it can be done as governments all over the world have shown, says Andrew Haldenby.

    6. Fairness and the minimum wage (Financial Times)

    Pay not price-fixing is the answer to the cost-of-living crisis, argues an FT leader.

    7. George Osborne talks tough but acts like a Labour chancellor (Guardian)

    Despite the claims to austerity, Britain has seen nothing to compare with the cuts imposed on the Greeks or Spaniards, writes Simon Jenkins.

    8.  If cannabis is legal, more teenagers will smoke it – and that can’t be good (Independent)

    People who want to legalise drugs talk about harm reduction, and they are right to, says John Rentoul. 

    9. The poverty of US political journalism (Financial Times)

    It pains me to say the trade has not been in such a grievous state since Watergate, writes Jurek Martin.  

    10. Don’t gamble with the poorest in society (Times)

    Forget the tax income, Cameron, just pull the plug on the social curse of high street mini-casinos, says Alice Thomson. 

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