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Articles on this Page
- 01/09/14--03:07: _Why the No campaign...
- 01/09/14--03:35: _A cave with a view:...
- 01/09/14--03:58: _Commons Confidentia...
- 01/09/14--04:30: _Against nature: The...
- 01/09/14--04:30: _The left lionises E...
- 01/09/14--05:01: _How did Baz Luhrman...
- 01/09/14--05:34: _Do you hear what I ...
- 01/09/14--05:52: _Google Doodles: cut...
- 01/09/14--06:25: _The Fan: the year i...
- 01/09/14--06:31: _Lez Miserable: If J...
- 01/09/14--06:53: _Ed Balls on why he'...
- 01/09/14--07:01: _Five questions answ...
- 01/09/14--07:25: _Martin Rees: “Advan...
- 01/09/14--07:32: _Video: SMEs and the...
- 01/09/14--08:25: _Why the bridge scan...
- 01/09/14--08:32: _The Lib Dems must m...
- 01/09/14--09:05: _We're hiring! The N...
- 01/09/14--09:38: _The Mark Duggan ver...
- 01/09/14--09:41: _Anxiety over voter ...
- 01/15/14--02:27: _Hollande and the Fr...
- 01/09/14--03:07: Why the No campaign should encourage Cameron to debate Salmond
- 01/09/14--03:35: A cave with a view: the imaginative benefits of living in the dark
- 01/09/14--03:58: Commons Confidential: The Boss is back in town
- 01/09/14--04:30: Against nature: The abrasive brilliance of 12 Years a Slave
- 01/09/14--05:34: Do you hear what I hear? The year's festive music wrapped up
- 01/09/14--05:52: Google Doodles: cute clickbait that ripples through the news cycle
- 01/09/14--06:25: The Fan: the year in football
- 01/09/14--06:31: Lez Miserable: If Jews can learn to love Christmas, then so can gays
- 01/09/14--06:53: Ed Balls on why he's committed to "responsible capitalism"
- 01/09/14--07:32: Video: SMEs and the green energy challenge
- 01/09/14--09:41: Anxiety over voter fraud must not stifle electoral registration
The Prime Minister's persistent refusal to debate Salmond will become a running sore and an increasingly dominant aspect of the campaign.
As the well-worn Westminster joke goes, there are more pandas in Scotland than there are Conservative MPs. It is a truism to note that those north of the border are not naturally predisposed to the Conservative Party. Despite achieving nigh on 40% of the vote at the last general election in England, the Conservatives sank to less than 17% in Scotland, returning the lone David Mundell as the dash of blue in the otherwise crimson electoral map. This sobering electoral arithmetic no doubt informed David Cameron’s understated admission at Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday that his appeal "does not stretch to all people in Scotland". It is seemingly this, and the fact that he is very much an Englishman, that is driving his near-absence from the No campaign as Scotland finally votes on its independence this September.
It is easy to see the logic behind the decision. Salmond is one of the most accomplished and gifted politicians of his generation. His mandate in Scotland is near-absolute, Cameron’s none-existent. He has crushed a once proud and omnipotent Scottish Labour party and commanded political popularity far exceeding his nearest rival for six years now. The SNP are one of the few political parties in government with a clear and retained polling lead. And even if they lose the referendum, it is unfathomable that the SNP will not be in government after the next set of Scottish elections in 2016 – surpassing Labour’s total years of governance at Holyrood.
It is always tempting to cast Salmond as the man with all the cards in his hand. Tempting, in part, because both Salmond and the media have long-fuelled the myth of Scotland’s first minister as an irresistible force leading a movement whose time, as the party’s slogan says, has come. But Alex Salmond does not make Scottish independence inevitable. Support for the SNP has never readily translated into support for independence. His political narcissism, always prevalent, is beginning to boil over. The customary cocky brinkmanship will begin to grate if the electorate sense he is overdoing the performance in what is so patently a serious moment. Behind the façade, Salmond has always understood that most Scots are sceptical about independence – hence his latest attempts to bait the Prime Minister into debating him. It is a challenge the Better Together campaign should readily take up.
Cameron’s persistent refusal to debate Salmond will become a running sore and an increasingly dominant aspect of the campaign. It will be cited at every juncture by every advocate of independence and, if the polls narrow, which they surely will, Cameron’s absence will become simply untenable. What could be more apt than the leader of Scotland, making the case for independence, and the leader of the UK, defending its continued existence, as the centrepiece of this referendum campaign?
Salmond’s predictable sneering at Cameron’s refusal, with as many references to his Conservative, English heritage as possible, should not distract from Cameron’s achievement. Cameron was the leader who, in early 2012, finally broke out from the corner into which Salmond had long pinned the main party leaders by forcing the SNP leader to concede the date and conditions on which the referendum was set. This was, somewhat predictably, met with a howl of protest from Salmond who confidently declared Cameron’s meddling would see increased support for independence. Then, as now, the polls remain stubbornly against the SNP leader. Salmond was always content on letting the referendum date lapse ever longer into the future, hoping for the polls to change and praying for an outright Conservative victory at the 2015 general election.
For years, Salmond has been able to dictate the political debate north of the border with past and present opposition leaders who were either unable or simply unwilling to take him on at his own game. The emerging candidate to do just that is the Prime Minister, David Cameron, even if he does not yet realise it himself. He is clearly a competent performer on television and to commit to a debate would, at a stroke, deny Salmond a key line of attack. As long as Cameron is humble, not regal, and clear in his intentions that this is about his determination to secure the Union and not for electoral prospects, for he has none, then the Prime Minister has the ability to rise above Salmond’s desperate attempt to frame the vote as that of Scotland versus the Tories. Scottish voters will see the difference, and with it may well grant a rare victory for long-held foe.
My Norfolk house is my cave conceit. It’s ancient and cranky, full of dark recesses and shifting pools of light.
Illustration: Laura Carlin
Winter in Norfolk tends to revolve around a kind of weather known locally as “dinge”, which like all good vernacular tags is satisfyingly self-explanatory. I know a dinge day before I open my eyes, and I know how the day will develop for me: a thick head and sulky hours gazing at a screen against a grey cloud-ceiling. I know, I should force myself out more. But sometimes the prospect of blank trees and the glum corduroy of the ploughlands locks me inside, leaving me trying to find landscapes in my imagination.
Tim Dee, in his marvellous new memoir, Four Fields, argues that indoors/outdoors is not just a topographical opposition but describes two kinds of experience. “Indoors, seen from the field, seemed at best to be talk about life . . . [but] I saw it was true that indoor talk helped the outdoor world come alive and could itself be living and lovely, too.” Tim is as pace-setting in his writing as he is in the field and I go along with him (at least in my head, not sure about the legs) that there is an osmosis between indoors and out, and that outdoors is often at its most thrilling when it resembles the unpredictable ebbing and flowing of “indoor talk”. To that, I’d add that indoors often seems physically invaded by field liveliness.
When I moved to East Anglia, in 2002, I lodged briefly in a big, timber-framed farmhouse, riddled with knot-holes and plaster cracks. Early that winter a violent south-west gale raked through the countryside and was palpable inside the house. A strange miasma began to fill the rooms, an aerial flotsam of pulverised bat droppings, rotten wood, horsehair and plaster dust from desiccated wattle and daub. The house was full of five centuries of fossils and the wind had blown them back to life.
A few months later, I was out on the fen one frosted late afternoon and saw our resident herd of Konik ponies (ancestors of – and barely distinguishable from – the native European wild horse) careering through the reeds, their stubbly manes glowing crystal-red in the sunset. It was like a panel from the Ice Age cave paintings in the Ardèche and ever since then, I’ve had a thing – that I hope doesn’t rationalise my winter sloth – about caves being the archetypal creative arena; places where the membrane between inside and outside is most permeable. The great American nature writer Annie Dillard once described her own cavernous writing needs for an attic with blacked-out windows. “One needs a room with no view,” she wrote, “so imagination can meet memory in the dark.”
The Norfolk house I now live in helps fuel my cave conceit. It’s ancient and cranky, full of dark recesses and shifting pools of light. In winter, hoping that creeping about might stand in for big hikes, I prowl about like some interior forager and the house feels not just like a memory pit, but an interior ecosystem, in which information is among the species. The shelves are full of creatures hunkering down amid the data: house crickets loaf on the warm shelves, silverfish dart from opened pages. Books and papers pile themselves into serendipitous arrangements, like ongoing conversations (did I really put a copy of my family tree, with all its dissident Polish forebears, on top of a scientific paper on ash dieback in eastern Europe?).
Sometimes, a rare shaft of low winter sunlight, reflected off bird-scaring CDs in the garden, lights up the swells in the old plasterwork. The artist who decorated the Chauvet Cave in the Ardèche exploited the same trick of the light and painted a distorted rhinoceros over a curve in the rock so that it seems to shift and tense when lit by a moving lamp.
Recently, the East Anglian coast was hammered by the biggest winter storm surge for half a century. I love extreme weather – the polar opposite of dinge – and the sense it gives of the outdoor world weaving and warping like indoor talk. It was only the possible bad taste of goggling at others’ misfortune that stopped me driving up for a look. But no such delicacy inhibited thousands (many of whom had been evacuated) from crowding against the police barriers to watch the wave show.
Much of East Anglia lies only a few metres above sea level (we aren’t called web-feet for nothing) and the idea of inundation is part of the indigenous folk memory – almost a local creation myth. Water is respected but treated with the same chutzpah that a snake charmer shows a snake. Famously, during the devastating North Sea flood of 1953, local drinkers in Orford took to the tables with their pints as the flood water lapped their chair legs.
Inland, the great rains this early winter have shown that flood water makes new opportunities as well as destroying old rigidities, and maybe joins past and future. On our local commons, new runnels and pools look as if they are just reclaiming ancient territory. Down in the New Forest a few weeks back, amid gale-snapped trees still smelling of resin, I watched a new stream being created, as a flash flood drove a branch through the leaf litter like a snowplough.
When I lived in the Chilterns during the great gales of the early 1980s, I used to go out storm-chasing. I never actually saw a big tree falling but I did once see a wind-thrown beech being dissolved by rain. The downpour was so ferocious, it was flaking off chunks of rotting wood and fungus, and essence of beech was dripping on to the forest floor. I was sheltering in a holly bush, a kind of arboreal cell, and watching it happen through a screen of foliage and indoor tropes. It was a classic cave experience, both inside and out.
Richard Mabey is a nature writer. His latest book is “Turned Out Nice Again: Living With the Weather” (Profile Books, £8.99)
Keith Vaz, I gather, didn’t buy Victor Spirescu so much as a cup of coffee. Make that Welcome to Austerity Britain.
Ed Miliband was reminded during a campaign trip in north London that politicians can’t choose the voters. Denouncing the evils of austerity and loan sharks on Kilburn High Road, the Labour leader happily posed for a selfie when a young lady skipped up and produced her phone. He agreed to visit the shopworker’s emporium until she led him to a pawnbroker. A little further along the road, according to my witness, another woman asked for a snap. Miliband duly smiled as she took their picture on her phone. “And where do you work?” enquired a pleased Ed. “Over there,” replied the female elector, “in that payday loans shop.” A wannabe prime minister collects votes wherever he finds them.
I hear Victor Spirescu, the Romanian car-washer detained by Keith Vaz for a photocall at Luton Airport, wishes he’d caught a later flight to avoid the publicity-obsessed Labour MP. Vaz, self-appointed chair of his own Welcome to Britain committee, lapped up the attention as he shook the migrant worker’s hand and then sat with him in a café as photographers clicked away. Vaz, I gather, didn’t buy Spirescu so much as a cup of coffee. Make that Welcome to Austerity Britain.
David Cameron is becoming ever so grand, whispers a snout. The time when No 10 officials called him a chummy Dave have faded into history. These days lackeys refer to the PM as “The Boss”. The hired hands noticed Don’t Call Me Dave didn’t join a football match at Camp Bastion during an end-of-year flying visit to Afghanistan. Cameron never misses an opportunity to pick up a cricket bat or tennis racquet. He’s played badminton and ping-pong. But I’m told Don’t Call Me Dave feared an over-the-top tackle from a disgruntled squaddie. Pay freezes, pension cuts and P45s aren’t popular with people shot at for a lower standard of living or redundancy.
John Bercow greeted Unite’s “Red Len” McCluskey effusively at a Show Racism the Red Card shindig in Speaker’s House. Brother Bercow and Comrade McCluskey got along famously. Both have trouble with their party leaders: Cameron’s no fan of Bercow, while Miliband reported McCluskey’s union to the police over Falkirk. Perhaps of more long-term significance is the courting of McCluskey by Alex Salmond. The chief Nat asked the Unite leader which workers’ rights he’d like included in an independent Scotland’s Bill of Rights. Red Len’s lucky to get a cup of tea from Red Ed.
Buried in the honours list was an MBE for the Labour staffer Eric Wilson. The gong was for political service. Wilson is the party apparatchik who handled Falkirk. Miliband owes him more than a medal.
Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror
Director Steve McQueen and his impressive cast give their all in a story of anguish, brutality and defiance.
12 Years a Slave (15)
dir: Steve McQueen
Twelve Years a Slave is a magnificent achievement and it is a career best for everyone involved, not least its artist-turned-director, Steve McQueen. In this story of the slavery of African Americans, he has found a suitable fit for the preoccupation with spiritual and corporeal punishment seen in his earlier films (the hypnotic Hunger and the grave, inadvertently hilarious Shame). It is a perfect match of sensibility and subject matter and it also provides a release valve for an emotional indignation not previously expressed in McQueen’s films. Any shortcomings can be blamed on the difficulties of dramatising a story about suffering in a way that puts the oppressed on a level footing with their tormentors.
There could surely be no narrative of slavery more accessible to a wide audience than the life of Solomon Northup (played here by Chiwetel Ejiofor), whose 1853 memoir has been adapted by the screenwriter John Ridley. This is not to say that anyone could have done it, only that it appeals to a sense of cosmic injustice. Solomon is a free man at the start of his story, an African-American violinist and father-of-two who lives in Saratoga Springs, New York, where he enjoys greater social and material privileges than many of his white neighbours. When he wakes one morning to find he has been sold into slavery by his supposed benefactors, his disorientation has a Twilight Zone quality: his identity and social status have been overwritten; even his name has been replaced. When he objects, he is beaten with a wooden paddle until it breaks. The miracle is that he never does.
If we don’t sense that resilient core, the film cannot work. Fortunately it remains scientifically proven that no one can gaze upon Ejiofor’s face and remain impassive. This British actor is a magnetic presence, calm and watchful rather than demonstrative. Most of his performance is comprised of reaction shots as he surveys his new surroundings with a horror that he is largely forbidden to express. McQueen is not shy when it comes to depicting gruesome injuries: we have never seen so graphically the effect on flesh of protracted whipping. But it is just as disturbing when brutality is relegated to the background – slaves being beaten in the distance while others pick cotton in the foreground, or Solomon trudging past lynched bodies. In his silent absorption of each wrong we gain an understanding of the psychological state of the slave. Ejiofor shows that in this case it is possible to be victimised without becoming a victim.
Many people try their best to turn him into one. The itinerant nature of Solomon’s years in slavery invites us to judge each new antagonist against the last. The plantation owner William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) might be part of the infrastructure of oppression but he is civilised, his cowardice excusable, next to the snivelling carpenter Tibeats (Paul Dano) who attempts to lynch Solomon on Ford’s estate. Even he is almost an ally compared to who comes next. We know from the first shot of Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) reading aloud from the Bible that he will be a man of implacable temperament. What shocks is the inventiveness of his sadism and the unusual part played by his wife (Sarah Paulson). Solomon and hisfellow slave, the crushed, serene Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) become like children in an ugly divorce, each parent scoring points by abusing the other’s cherished child.
The danger here is that the sadists become more clearly defined in their atrocities than the slaves ever do in their subjugation. Many of the African-American characters blur into a mass of pain, whereas those wielding the whip have the virtue – in narrative terms, at least – of being highly distinguishable in their cruelty. (Violence is more visually dynamic than pacifism.) The unusualness of Solomon’s story also risks turning it into a specific aberration, rather than one representative of slavery as a whole. No one deserves to be owned but there is a sense that he, duped into captivity, merits it even less. We want to cry, “He wasn’t even meant to be a slave!” when we should be thinking: “Nobody was.”
It would be churlish to suggest that this diminishes the film; it only makes it more complex. For his part, McQueen does everything right. He has commissioned an unusually abrasive score from Hans Zimmer, full of indignant foghorns and orchestral churning that suggests metal buckling under force. Every detail is imbued with meaning, down to the shots that track sideways during scenes of extravagant violence. McQueen prefers Sean Bobbitt’s camera to move from right to left, defying the natural passage of our eyes, which try instinctively to read an image from left to right. Like slavery, it goes against nature.
Vanunu told the world about the full extent of Israel's nuclear capabilities. As a result he is being persecuted by the Israeli state in a three-decade punishment including treatment that Amnesty International has described as “cruel, inhuman and degrading”.
This is a tale of two whistleblowers. Let’s begin with Edward Snowden. The former US National Security Agency contractor has been hailed by the liberal left for exposing mass surveillance on an “almost Orwellian” scale (to borrow a line from a US district judge). He was voted person of the year for 2013 by Guardian readers and took the runner-up spot – behind the Pope! – in Time magazine’s annual list. On 25 December, Snowden appeared on Channel 4 to give the “alternative Christmas message”, warning viewers that the types of surveillance mentioned in Nineteen Eighty-Four “are nothing compared to what we have available today”.
On Christmas Day, another whistleblower spoke out – but inside an Israeli courtroom, rather than on British television. “I don’t want to live in Israel,” declared Mordechai Vanunu, who served 18 years behind bars for blowing the whistle on Israel’s nuclear secrets. “I cannot live here as a convicted spy, a traitor, an enemy and a Christian,” he told Israel’s High Court, in English, having vowed not to speak Hebrew until he is allowed to leave the country.
Vanunu was jailed in 1988 for leaking details of his work as a technician at a nuclear facility near Dimona to the Sunday Times two years earlier. On 29 December 2013, the court rejected his petition, on the grounds that he continues to possess information that could jeopardise Israel’s national security. Andrew Neil, the former editor of the Sunday Times, disagrees. “He told us everything,” Neil told me. “We drained him dry.”
Neil calls Vanunu’s revelations the biggest scoop of his 11-year editorship of the Sunday Times. “Everyone knew Israel had the bomb but what we didn’t know was the huge extent of its nuclear facilities and also its ability to make the hydrogen bomb,” he tells me. “[The Vanunu story] told the world that Israel was basically the sixth nuclear power.”
As a result, Vanunu has been persecuted by the Israeli state for almost three decades. For the first 11 years of his 18-year prison sentence, the former nuclear technician was held in solitary confinement in a nine-foot-by-six-foot cell. His treatment was condemned by Amnesty International as “cruel, inhuman and degrading”; Vanunu has described it as “barbaric”.
This barbarism has continued since his release in 2004. Vanunu has been subjected to restrictions on his freedom of speech and movement. He is prevented from talking to foreign journalists, visiting foreign embassies or owning a mobile phone and has repeatedly been placed under house arrest for breaching these strictures; hence his repeated attempts to try to leave the country.
It is worth repeating: in Israel, which styles itself as the “only democracy in the Middle East”, it is a crime for whistleblowers to meet foreigners. So, where’s the outrage? Where are the human rights activists? The liberal interventionists? Their silence is a stark reminder that it is far easier to champion the cause of an American critic of the US than an Israeli critic of Israel. (Especially when that critic is a Jewish convert to Christianity, as Vanunu is, and has dared to say: “A Jewish state is not necessary.”)
Not a single national newspaper in the UK covered Vanunu’s recent appearances in court. Over the past few years, the British press has deigned to mention his name on only a handful of occasions. Little has changed: “The day after we published the [Vanunu] story, all the British newspapers either ignored the story or rubbished it,” Neil recalls.
Vanunu has been ignored and forgotten. Those who criticise Snowden for fleeing to Russia by way of Hong Kong don’t have a clue. It is only because Snowden went on the run and, crucially, appeared on television and did interviews that the rest of us have been able to benefit from his information. The Israelis, as Neil notes, “feared the propaganda effect” of Vanunu. The Sunday Times had lined up a series of TV interviews for him, but before he could do them he was drugged and kidnapped by Mossad and taken back to Tel Aviv for trial.
Vanunu recently compared himself with Snowden, saying that the former NSA analyst “is the best example for what I did 25 years ago – when the government breaks the law and tramples on human rights, people talk . . . He speaks for everyone and that’s what I did.”
Like Snowden, Vanunu isn’t a traitor. He is a whistleblower who, in Neil’s words, “took the view that if Israel should have nukes, that should be a matter of public record [and] debate”. He could have sold Israel’s nuclear secrets to the highest bidders in Moscow or Damascus. He didn’t. The Vietnam war whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg calls Vanunu “the pre-eminent hero of the nuclear era”. “More Vanunus are urgently needed,” he wrote in the Los Angeles Times in 2004. “That is true not only in Israel but in every nuclear weapons state, declared and undeclared.”
Indeed, it is. Double standards, however, abound. Can you imagine how the west would treat an Iranian Vanunu? How hysterical do you think the response would be in London or Washington – or Tel Aviv! – if an Iranian nuclear scientist were to come forward with, say, photos of secret warheads, only to be locked up by the mullahs and sentenced to solitary confinement?
For 27 years, Vanunu has been deprived of his liberty – for blowing the whistle, for telling the truth. It is a moral and geopolitical disgrace. We cannot afford, in good conscience, to forget the plight of Israel’s Snowden. To quote the Northern Irish Nobel peace laureate Mairead Maguire, “We cannot be free while he is not free.”
The Great Gatsby made a remarkable comeback in 2013, but this adaptation is an American dream gone wrong.
The last thing that the narrator Nick Carraway tells us about Jay Gatsby in F Scott Fitzgerald’s novel is that he believed in “the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us”. Well, that orgastic future appears to be here, at least for the novel. When Justin Bieber describes a party he has thrown as “some Great Gatsby shit”, there is no doubting that the novel has arrived in the 21st century.
Clearly Bieber was referring to the Baz Luhrmann film, which, with its Prada wardrobe and Jay-Z soundtrack, launched its own mini fashion industry when it was released at the beginning of 2013. In the past few years the novel has been adapted into a six-hour stage production, a musical and a ballet – and Sarah Churchwell has pored over the real-life New York scandals that may have inspired Fitzgerald in her book Careless People.
It says something about the imaginative power of the novel that it can withstand being translated into so many different media. Ironically, however, the disappointing thing about the most visible of these adaptations – Luhrmann’s version for the big screen – is how dependent it is on its source. Luhrmann relies heavily on Nick’s highly distinctive voice, in the form not just of a voice-over but by inventing an ill-conceived frame narrative (the film begins with a traumatised Nick visiting a psychoanalyst, who gives him the entirely predictable advice to write his story down as a way to cure himself) and, worst of all, by having some of Nick’s best-known lines appear on the screen as he writes them down.
That’s not to say that the film should have left out the novel’s most memorable passages. But the challenge of adapting a work of art is to find a form commensurate to it.
Luhrmann’s music video aesthetic does allow him to get certain things right: the party at Myrtle’s New York apartment, “the world and his mistress” enjoying themselves at Gatsby’s expense, Wilson’s gas station in the Valley of Ashes. But whereas Fitzgerald’s Gatsby “turned out all right in the end” despite the “foul dust [that] floated in the wake of his dream”, the dream and the dust, for Luhrmann, are one and the same.
What saves Fitzgerald’s Gatsby is what Nick calls his “romantic readiness”. In celebrating Gatsby’s capacity for wonder, Nick can plausibly lay claim to possess it – and by celebrating it in Nick, the reader, too, can plausibly lay claim to possess it. We may not believe Gatsby when he famously insists that the past can be repeated, but we recognise the force of his desire.
This transferability of desire is aided by the particular quality of the book’s prose. Fitzgerald’s extravagant images have a life beyond Gatsby; the magic of the novel is that every reader feels at times as if Nick were talking not just directly to them, but for them. It’s not that we think we can have Gatsby’s or Nick’s life, nor that reading The Great Gatsby will allow us to participate vicariously in the Roaring Twenties. But what we do have a claim to is the language in which this world is described; that, one day, if we stretch out our arms farther, we might have an experience commensurate with the words Fitzgerald has given us.
Because we think of Nick as our proxy, however, we tend not to talk back. No other major novel has provoked such little major criticism. By contrast, it is striking that books devoted to Fitzgerald’s contemporaries such as Woolf, Joyce and Conrad appear almost monthly. While the critics ignore Fitzgerald’s novel, novelists return to it repeatedly; a writer in John Irving’s Hotel New Hampshire even jumps out of a window because she realises that she will never write anything as beautiful as the end of The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald’s influence shows no sign of waning: a recent article in El País observes that The Great Gatsby has replaced Ulysses as the model for a new era of Latin American novelists; Nick’s personal confidences are somehow appropriate to a younger generation searching for a more intimate style in the wake of magical realism.
Why, then, has it proved so hard for critics to write about The Great Gatsby? I teach the book almost every year, and begin my lectures by listing a few of the titles of undergraduate term papers on the novel available for purchase on the internet: “The Great Gatsby and the American Dream”, “The American Dream in The Great Gatsby”, “The Fall of the American Dream in The Great Gatsby”, “Distortion of the American Dream in The Great Gatsby”. There are many, many more.
Saying that the novel is about the American dream, I tell my students, is as helpful as saying that Madame Bovary is about adultery; what’s needed is a different vocabulary, closer to the one we find in the novel itself. But because Fitzgerald’s language feels too intimate for literary criticism, my students either avoid writing about the novel or turn in papers not so different from the ones I parody in my lectures.
Yet it is precisely the intimacy of Fitzgerald’s language that makes The Great Gatsby not just a great American novel, but a true innovation in the form of the novel. Nick Carraway’s friendly and familiar voice has predecessors, both British (David Copperfield, Esther Summerson) and American (Ishmael, Huck Finn). But whereas the first-person narrators of the 19th-century novel are usually the hero of their own story, Nick is closer to what the Hungarian critic Georg Lukács called the “mediocre heroes” of Walter Scott’s novels: on the periphery, witnesses to greatness rather than great in their own right.
The 20th-century novel is full of mediocre heroes; indeed, it might almost be said to be defined by them. Yet what distinguishes Nick from Molloy or Slothrop or Josef K is that these heroes feel estranged from their lives, as if they belonged to someone else. For Nick, however, it is imagining someone else’s life that gives him ownership of his life.
Nick’s life by proxy is echoed in the novel’s plot: Gatsby woos Daisy through Nick; first Myrtle and then Wilson mistake Gatsby for Tom; Nick is mistaken for Wilson and then for an associate of Gatsby’s by Wolfsheim, who tells Nick that he “had a wrong man”. No wonder one of the first things Nick tells us is that the founder of his family sent a substitute to the civil war.
One could say, rearranging Wolfsheim’s odd comment, that there is no such thing in The Great Gatsby as a right man, because life is always a matter of identifying with someone else: the reader identifies with Nick, Nick identifies with Gatsby, and Gatsby, being the Platonic creation of himself, identifies with himself. “What was the use of doing great things if I could have a better time telling [Daisy] what I was going to do?” he explains to Nick. Gatsby’s preference for describing events over experiencing them aligns him with Nick and with Lukács’s mediocre heroes, closing the circle of identification. Everyone wants to identify with the great Gatsby – even Gatsby.
Ever since another Hungarian critic, Béla Balázs, noted that the characters in a film “see with our eyes”, the notion of identification has been central to how we think about film, which makes Luhrmann’s failure to explore this question all the more disappointing. Another, very different adaptation – the theatre group Elevator Repair Service’s Gatz – makes clear just how central identification is to the workings of the novel. (“Adaptation” may not be the right word, as the play, in what the scholar Barbara Fuchs calls “an act of perverse, extreme fidelity”, includes every word in the novel, every “he said” and “she said”, every description.) Fuchs notes that, transferred to the stage, the intimacy of the novel becomes almost threatening as characters struggle over who gets to speak their words, thoughts and desires. The technique gives identification bodily form, makes public the intimate relation between reader and Nick, and between Nick and his story.
The play is set in an office, and is set in motion when a bored worker picks up Fitzgerald’s novel from his desk and begins to read. As he reads, the office clock stops, showing the same time throughout the six-hour-plus production. The conceit nicely dramatises the shared suspension of belief involved not just in reading any novel or watching any play, but in the novel itself.
A broken clock also appears in Luhrmann’s film. Finally reunited with Daisy after five years, Gatsby momentarily loses his extraordinary self-possession and knocks over an antique clock, smashing it. The moment is obviously symbolic, the broken clock representing how time has stopped for Gatsby. What makes the stopped clock in Gatz different from the smashed clock in Luhrmann’s film is its coexistence with another temporal order: the play that is taking place before our eyes. For it is not simply that James Gatz’s belief in Gatsby, like Nick’s belief in him and our belief in Nick, requires a continual refusal of time, but that this refusal is precisely what constitutes our sense of time moving forward. This is how I have always understood Fitzgerald’s celebrated last line: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” The older we get, the more we live in the past, because the more past there is for us to live in.
The same idea is expressed in the preceding paragraph, the one describing the “orgastic future that year by year recedes before us”. “Before” here signals the sense both of something having happened already and of something being ahead of us, a future more and more made up of the past. Capturing this sense is a matter neither of painstakingly re-creating the look of the Twenties, nor of updating the novel with a hip-hop soundtrack. It involves reimagining a work whose extraordinary prose has in turn helped form the imagination not just of writers, but of readers in search of a language to understand their own dreams and desires.
Stuart Burrows is an associate professor of English at Brown University
R'n'B stylings of classic holiday hits and Cockney staples.
Music is the primary source of what Blackadder’s Prince Regent calls “the Xmas atmos”. Christmas music in shops shifts the public into the act of retail. When the shopping is done and we are at home with anticlimax on the horizon, we employ it anxiously to keep the atmos going.
This year, the job goes to Mary J Blige, whose A Mary Christmas features R’n’B stylings of classic holiday hits. Much modern Yule music seems oddly un-Christmassy, at least in the sense of bells and chanting. Blige’s luxuriant vocal adds a sophisticated gospel touch to lyrics such as “per-up-per-pum-pum”, while “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)” is a full-on adult moment, the orchestra and vibe-effect keyboard conjuring images of the sheepskin rug and the man in the polo neck. Listening to Blige on Spotify, I uncovered a Christmas duet she recorded with Rod Stewart a while back: even those two were kept in check by the strange scansion (“We three kings of orientar . . .”) that makes the old religious songs so atmospheric.
The weirdest Christmas song this year is Susan Boyle’s “duet” with Elvis, “O Come All Ye Faithful”. Boyle is the first British artist given permission to co-opt Presley’s vocal track for new material; she got the go-ahead after telling Priscilla that her father had been a fan. Like Tony Blair, Boyle now has a lucrative career on the US circuit, where she performs in churches. Her Christmas album (Home for Christmas) features an original composition called “Miracle Hymn” that, melodically, lies somewhere between “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” and Lana Del Rey’s “Video Games”. The youthfulness and cut-glass purity of her voice is still striking. Her “per-up-per-pum-pums” are more clipped than Blige’s. Imagine taking on “The Little Drummer Boy” in the summer (Christmas albums are always recorded months in advance), knowing that two doors down someone else is recording the same thing. There’s nothing to do but try to scale new heights of purity (listen to this year’s “Ave Maria”, by Leona Lewis).
In my household, the seasonal staple is A Cockney Christmas with Chas’n’Dave, which is an antidote to the modern pop Yule, being rough around the edges and full of colliery brass. “Coventry Carol” sounds wonderfully out of place in their music-hall world, tales of slain babies recounted sincerely in East End accents. We also have an annual viewing of R Kelly’s Trapped in the Closet, which, for those not lucky enough to have seen it yet, is a 33-episode, low-budget “hip-hopera” in which the R’n’B legend narrates various fictional intrigues and sex scandals in 133 minutes of half-sung libretto, all in three notes.
No matter how unusual the event, commemoration in one of Google's daily Doodles will create a news story.
Today is the 106th anniversary of the birth of feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir. The 106th anniversary of an event isn’t a particularly special one most of the time - the debates kicking off at the moment over the causes and legacy of the First World War are happening in the centenary of the year the war began, not waiting until 2020, after all - but nevertheless, the big news sites are all covering it.
Here’s the Guardian (twice!), here’s the Telegraph, here’s the Mirror, here’s the Independent (also twice!), here’s Le Matin, here’s CNN Turkey, here’s a stock investment analysis site called 4-traders, here’s Poland’s Gazeta. Those are just a sample of how many sites, around the world, all chose to host the same story on the same day, and from the same angle.
Click any of those links and you’ll see why - she’s in today’s Google Doodle. Indeed, try searching for Simone de Beauvoir on Google today, and no fewer than four of the top seven results are links to news stories about her being “honoured” with a Doodle:
It’s even clearer that it’s the Doodle, not de Beauvoir herself, that’s the real news story, if you search on Google News for her name:
These articles are all basically the same when you read them: Simone de Beauvoir’s in a Google Doodle, and here’s a few paragraphs outlining who she was and why she deserves it. In fairness to the Guardian, which ran a special series of Comment Is Free articles on de Beauvoir on the centenary of her birth, she's not an unusual subject. The others though? Not so much. Can't find anything on the Telegraph'ssite about de Beauvoir's 100th birthday, nor any other mentions outside of a few book reviews. Search the Mirror's site and the only other mention of de Beauvoir is in an article about another philosopher, Kierkegaard, getting the Google Doodle treatment. And you can be sure that that stocks site hasn't dealt with her before either.
Here's the page where every single Google Doodle is collected, most of which appear on all of Google's regional sites. That helps newspapers in Europe and the US which want hits - they can see what goes up on Google's Australian homepage hours before it goes live in their own region. Put together a quick article, push it live fast enough, and that's a spot on the results page for a famous historical figure staked out for a few days.
Rather than say this is a good or a bad thing - and I've written those types of articles before, so I'm not going to claim innocence - it's more an interesting example of the incentives that digital journalists are confronted with. What matters in online journalism is the speed of publication, not necessarily the quality, because that correlates to the greater number of shares, clicks, engagements, whichever metric you prefer.
The algorithms that Google's News page uses also rely on the size and perceived readership of the sites it features, along with the number of articles it puts out a day, along with other factors, to decide which stories to promote and which to ignore. In the case of Google Doodles, we can see the emergence of a symbiotic relationship: Google's choice of a person or topic gives newspapers an easy topic to cover with guaranteed interest from a key source of traffic, keeping them near the top of the News rankings for other topics; while Google gets traffic to its services from people made aware of its cute little commemorative cartoon or game.
Google, then, creates the news (or at least some news), and has the ability to raise awareness about niche topics or person who are perhaps not particularly well catered for by the media most of the time (see: the Telegraph covering the birthday of an important feminist thinker). Two days ago the Doodle commemorated the 123rd birthday of Zora Neale Hurston, an African-American author and anthropologist, in the US, a fascinating figure I had absolutely no familiarity with and which I'd have remained ignorant of if I hadn't been looking into Doodles for this article. So thanks, Google. Just be epistemologically aware that you can, to an extent, game your search results.
Come on, Cameron, get your togs on!
So how have we all done so far? Our brave new managers. Most surprising this season to have so many of our top clubs in the hands of new faces.
Mourinho, the noisiest newcomer, is of course not totally new, but so far has managed only a B+ on his return to Chelsea. Lost his touch, rather, and a lot of hair. Getting cropped short was a mistake, revealing that worrying widow speak, I mean widow’s peak, scuse typing.
Pellegrini at Man City has been quiet and dignified, but he’s not really done that much better, which he should, considering his ace squad of players. Good win against Bayern Munich, though. So, a B+. And his hair is lovely.
Poor old David Moyes at Man United. C+? Who’d have thought that at Christmas they would be languishing nearer the middle than the top? Not really his fault, inheriting some crocks. But surely he should have known that Fellaini was all hair and no heart? Fergie was so smart getting out when he did, knowing that van Persie, with his poor record of injuries, would be bound to fade eventually.
The best of the new managers has been Roberto Martínez – a very creditable A-. He took over at Everton with the same squad Moyes had. We always thought Moyes had held them up: now it could be he was holding them back.
But the top manager is a golden oldie. Rubbished by so many intellectual Gooners last season, now look at him, streaking ahead. Must stop wringing his hands, though. A sure sign of worries. A straight A for Arsène.
Arsenal, however, will have to get a grip on Nicklas Bendtner, or get rid of the grip or whatever he uses to tie up his silly little topknot. Also Santi Cazorla is in danger of exposing his bum: his long baggy shorts seem to get longer and baggier, so low down they are about fall off. Can’t the kit man afford to get shorts that fit him, rather than Mertesacker’s cast-offs?
So, the year in football:
Hair Mentioned in despatches already, but dismissed because, really, what is there to get excited about? Too many tatty Mohicans still cropping up. But a house point to Tim Howard, Everton’s goalie, for his black beard, which set off his baldy heed magnificently – though it did look totally phoney. Pity he’s shaved it off.
Cutaway collars Now we’re talking top football fashion. Hope you’ve been spotting them, on managerial necks all over the shop. I wonder if Charles Tyrwhitt has been handing out free samples? Which would be clever, as managerial close-ups have never been so close up.
David Moyes has worn a really dramatic one all season – could this be a symbol of him being constricted? So have Alan Pardew of Newcastle, Malky Mackay at Cardiff and Pellegrini at Man City. Their wives must be well pleased, so much smarter than sweatshirts and trackie bottoms, but it does make them look like dodgy City bond traders.
Euphemisms A mealy-mouthed phrase has crept in this season: “He’s better than that.” All it means is that he’s playing shite.
Clichés“In transition”. Used by commentators to cover Moyes’s poor performance at Man United, Bendtner’s stupid barnet, André Villas-Boas’s seven new useless players. Polite words, they hope, to save them from being thumped.
Image 1 That photo of the German players sitting quietly on the Tube going to Wembley to stuff England. The Tube, mein Gott: English players wouldn’t recognise one if it emerged out of their back passage. So sensible, the Germans, organised, practical and, most of all, humble. Shows on the pitch and in real life.
Image 2 Still lodged in my mind is a TV shot of Prince William sitting in the stand watching Aston Villa, his fave team. He was wearing specs – exactly the same kind I use for watching football – and fiddling with them, just as I do.
But it was his clothes that struck me – his nondescript zip-up, padded jacket and Villa scarf, looking just like, well, most Villa fans. Or football fans generally in winter. Oh, you can’t say football isn’t an equalising force for good.
So what about Dave Cam? I thought he was a Villa fan? Come on, Cameron, get your togs on.
Speaker Yes, Mr Speaker himself. Now we’re talking top celebs. On 23 November, at the Emirates for Arsenal-Southampton, I spotted John Bercow sitting behind me with his Arsenal scarf and what I took to be his young son. He was sitting down, even at half-time, so I couldn’t properly check his height. Must have been him. Or a doppelgänger.
Names A huge welcome to Kévin Théophile-Catherine, who signed for Cardiff this season from Rennes. Great name, great guy. Shame we haven’t heard more of him, or his full name. More names I do like it when Liverpool manage to have (Jon) Flanagan and (Joe) Allen performing together, after all these years.
Almost as good will be Spurs-West Ham when it’s (Aaron) Lennon against (George) McCartney and the old rivalry resumes.
Luis Suárez Liverpool’s best player, whom we’re going to hear a lot more of at the World Cup, alas, when Uruguay take England to the cleaners. I can’t see England beating Italy or Costa Rica either in their group games. So they’ll be back home early doors, and away from that frightful heat and humidity, which Dear Roy so kindly warned us was his worst nightmare. What was he thinking of? Our lads have fragile enough minds without scaring the shit out of them before they kick the first ball.
But back to Suárez. Did you know he has a daughter called Delfina? Which is an anagram of, wait for it . . . Anfield. Neat, huh?
Christmas is the one time of year that straight, socially conservative men unconsciously gay it up for a whole month.
Somewhere in Middle England, a middle-aged dad sits in the middle of a DFS sofa. He’s in the middle of a Mail on Sunday article about Middle European immigrants. Every time he reads the word “taxpayer”, he clenches his buttocks. He’s wearing a red-and-green knitted sweater with the words “ho”, “ho” and “ho” jauntily spelled out across the front. He’s just helped decorate the tree, so tinsel hangs from his shoulders and catches the light that shines from the glowing nose of his novelty Rudolph mug. Mindlessly, he hums along to “Santa Baby” on the radio.
Welcome to Christmas, the only time of year in which probable homophobes have absolutely no idea how gay they’re being. It’s the all-singing, all-dancing festival that is so deep in the closet, it’s found next year’s Christmas presents. The Season is in so much denial about its sexuality that Hallmark recently started selling a Christmas decoration on which the word “gay” had been changed to “fun” in the “Deck the Halls” lyric, as in “Don we now our [expletive deleted] apparel”.
As a young, politically aware lesbian, I find there’s a lot of pressure to shun all forms of establishment-approved fun. This includes weddings, stuff where the Queen waves and anything involving Stephen Fry. Christmas falls smack into the “must avoid” list like a fat, dead turkey. But, as with any other ludicrously camp celebration, I think Christmas should be taken for what it is: a gigantic gay piss-up.
The annual and systematic Noel Edmondsification of an entire nation is absurdity at its finest. Watching straight, socially conservative men unconsciously gay it up for a whole month never stops being funny. That we do the same thing every bloody year is one of those “full circle” jokes that goes from hilarious, to funny, to mildly amusing, to irritating, and back to hilarious again. Mulled wine is like Merlot’s “unmarried” uncle, Santa wears fur and Christmas trees are essentially the drag queens of the arboreal world.
Every year, at least one person asks me why my Jewish family celebrates Christmas. Well, for a start, my (secular) parents never wanted my siblings and me to miss out. They also have a fairly decent sense of irony. I grew up thinking that chopped liver was a traditional Yuletide delicacy and that Christmas trees were called “Hanukkah bushes”. I have fond memories of my parents coming in from the cold, loaded with shopping bags, my dad looking shaken and saying, “The goyim are going mad out there.”
If Jews can learn to love Christmas, then so can gays. And just as so many Jews Jewify Christmas, the LGBT community should queer it. Let’s coax Christmas out of the closet. Let’s take the coy “wink, wink” away from “don we now our gay apparel”. People, all people, should be looking at that and saying, “Well, of course we’re donning our homosexual apparel. It’s Christmas.” Then they should have a tipsy, same-sex kiss under the mistletoe and wait for Father Christmas to come down their chimney with a sack full of Ryan Gosling topless calendars, and something ethical for the lesbians.
The shadow chancellor rejects claims that he lacks enthusiasm for Miliband's agenda and declares his support for "a different kind of economy".
One of the criticisms made by some in Labour of Ed Balls is that he is not committed enough to Ed Miliband's "responsible capitalism" agenda. The shadow chancellor is often viewed as less concerned with rebalancing the economy away from finance and with introducing a tougher system of bank regulation. One Blue Labour figure recently described him to me as "a conventional Brownite politician", suggesting that his philosophy was little changed from the days when the party advocated a "light touch" approach to the City.
But when I put this charge to Balls during my interview with him for this week's NS, he responded with one of the best summaries yet of how his views have evolved and why he is as committed as Miliband to a reshaped capitalism. Here's the full quote, which I didn't have room to include in the piece.
The last Labour government didn’t build enough homes, and we’ve got to have a big drive on housing. The last Labour government didn’t do enough to regulate banking and we need to have a different approach to competition and to the regulation of banks. The last Labour government tried to persuade business to invest in skills for the adult workforce, and I don’t think it worked very well. The last Labour government went softly, softly on the agency workers directive and that was a mistake. The last Labour government talked about finding ways to have more long-term incentives and rules of the game for takeovers and capital markets, but we didn’t act.
In every one of those areas, the next Labour government has said that it’s going to act. The last Labour government tried to find ways to encourage, to fill that market gap for small business lending, but the next Labour government will have a British Investment Bank as an institution to drive small business support across the country.
On every one of those areas, Ed and I are working closely together on the policy agenda to deliver a different kind of economy. It’s a different Labour leadership, it’s a different kind of Labour Party, it’s a different political challenge, it’s a different policy agenda and it’s suited to different times and we’re working on it closely together. I’m not sure where the difference is, or where the lack of enthusiasm comes from, because it doesn’t come from me.
Why did supermarket sales take a hit?
Morrisons and Tesco have reported a fall in their Christmas sales. We answer five questions on both supermarkets’ lacklustre sales.
By how much has Tesco’s and Morrisons’ sales fallen?
In the six weeks to January 5 2014 Morrisons’ like for like sales fell 5.6 per cent, causing its shares to plummet by 7 per cent.
Tesco's like-for-like sales fell by 2.4 per cent over the festive period. It’s shares fell by 4 per cent.
What have the companies attributed these weaker sales to?
Morrisons believe its sales were weak due to a lack of online presence, as well as competition by cut-price shops, such as Lidl and Aldi. The supermarket is set to enter the online shopping market on Friday, when it will launch a trial in Warwickshire, covering parts of the Midlands.
Tesco simply said the fall in sales was due to a "weaker grocery market" in the UK.
What else did the supermarket giants say?
Morrisons said it was "disappointed" by the sales. In a statement the retailer said:
"The difficult market conditions were intensified for Morrisons by the accelerating importance of the online and convenience channels, where Morrisons is currently under-represented, and by targeted couponing which was particularly prevalent in the market this Christmas."
Tesco, which also saw a 0.7 per cent fall in its overseas sales, said its move to open fewer stores in the UK was also behind the sales drop.
Philip Clarke, chief executive at Tesco, said: "Our overseas performance has improved since the third quarter, driven by an improving trend in Europe. This is despite continuing external challenges, including the recent political disruption in Thailand."
What have the experts said?
Will Hedden, sales trader at spread-betting firm IG, told the BBC: "There is the impression that more and more business is going online, and Morrisons has been slow to come into that area.
"Their online offering is going to need to become pretty good, pretty quickly to compete."
While George Osborne took the release of the figures as an opportunity to say they showed that the industry is "very competitive".
"We have to work through the long-term economic plan that is turning Britain around and we need to make sure we get balanced growth across the whole country and we get investments and exports alongside consumer spending,” he told the BBC.
How did the other big supermarkets do over Christmas?
Sainsburys posted its lowest growth figures for nine years prompting the company to scale back its growth forecast for 2014. It reported this week that its sales had increased by just 0.2 per cent in the 14 weeks to January, despite prices rising by some 2.5 per cent.
Waitrose, on the other hand, revealed on Wednesday a 3.1 per cent rise in underlying sales in the five weeks to Christmas Eve. This was boosted by a 33 per cent rise in online grocery sales.
Co-op reported a 1 per cent rise in underlying sales at its grocery stores in the 13 weeks to 4 January.
The Astronomer Royal takes the NS Centenary Questionnaire.
What is the most important invention of the past hundred years?
The silicon chip and the discovery of the double helix, both dating from the mid-20th century, are transformative and will be more so.
What do you think will be the most significant change to our lives in the next century?
Scientists have a rotten record as forecasters. One of my predecessors as astronomer royal said, as late as the 1950s, that space travel was utter bilge. The iPhone would have seemed magical even 20 years ago. So, looking 50-plus years ahead, we must keep our minds open, or at least ajar, to what may now seem science fiction. But here are a few thoughts.
Before long, novel cognition-enhancing drugs, genetics and “cyborg” techniques may alter human beings themselves. That is something qualitatively new – and disquieting, because it could portend more fundamental forms of inequality if these options were open only to a privileged few.
And what about robots? I think they have two very different roles. The first is to operate in locations that human beings can’t reach, such as mines, oil rigs, nuclear power stations – and pursuing construction projects in space. The second role, deeply unglamorous, is to help old or disabled people with everyday life: tying shoelaces, cutting toenails and suchlike. Moreover, if robots can be miniaturised, they can perhaps be used inside our bodies for monitoring our health, undertaking surgery, and so on.
What is your greatest concern for the future?
Advances in technology – bio, cyber and nano – will render us vulnerable in new ways, living as we will in an ever more interconnected and crowded world. We depend on elaborate networks: electric power grids, air-traffic control, international finance, just-in-time delivery, and so forth. Unless these systems are highly resilient, their manifest benefits could be outweighed by catastrophic (albeit rare) breakdowns cascading through the system. Pandemics could spread at the speed of jet aircraft, causing maximal havoc in the shambolic but burgeoning megacities of the developing world. Social media could spread psychic contagion – rumours and panic – at the speed of light. Malign or foolhardy individuals and small groups have far more power and leverage than in the past.
What will be the most dramatic development in your own field?
Astronomers have learned something that makes the night sky far more interesting than it was to our forebears. Many stars – perhaps even most – are orbited by retinues of planets, just as the sun is. These planets have been inferred indirectly, by detecting their effect on the brightness or motion of the stars they’re orbiting around.
Later in the century we’ll be able to see these planets directly. To understand what we’ll learn, suppose that aliens existed, and that an alien astronomer with a powerful telescope was viewing the earth from (say) 30 light years away – the distance of a nearby star. Our planet would seem, in Carl Sagan’s phrase, a “pale blue dot”, very close to a star (our sun) that outshines it by many billions. The alien astronomers could infer the length of the “day”, the seasons, whether there are oceans, the gross topography and the climate. By analysing the faint light, they could infer that it had a biosphere.
Later this century we will have telescopes that can draw such inferences about earth-like planets orbiting other stars. Will there be life on them? How life began here on earth is still a mystery but I’m confident that it will be understood by the middle of the century. We will then have a better idea of how likely it is to exist on other planets.
But even if simple life were widespread, we can’t assess the odds of its evolving into a complex biosphere. And, even it did, it might anyway be unrecognisably different. Absence of evidence wouldn’t be evidence of absence. I won’t hold my breath for success.
What is the top priority for the future well-being of people and our planet?
In politics, the local trumps the global, and policies with longer timescales than the electoral cycle slip down the agenda. Our policies must be international (whether or not a pandemic gets a global grip may hinge, say, on how quickly a Vietnamese poultry farmer can report any strange sickness). And many of them – energy and climate change, for instance – involve multi-decade timescales, plainly far outside the “comfort zone” of most politicians. We downplay what is happening even now in impoverished, faraway countries. And we discount too heavily the problems we’ll leave for our grandchildren.
We need a change in priorities and perspective if we are to navigate the challenges of the 21st century: to share the benefits of globalisation, to prioritise clean energy and sustainable agriculture, and to handle the Promethean challenge posed by ever more powerful technology.
In association with RBS and NatWest, Ed Davey, Secretary of State for the Department for Energy and Climate Change and 10 SME players discuss their views on decarbonising and investment in the UK’s renewable and energy efficiency sector.
Small to medium enterprises (SMEs) make up 99 per cent of private sector businesses and 60 per cent of private sector jobs but often lack the time, understanding and cash to make use of green technology. If the government is committed to its environmental agenda it must address these issues and help the sector take full advantage of modern resources.
In association with RBS and NatWest, former New Statesman deputy editor Jon Bernstein and economia editor Richard Cree brought Ed Davey, Secretary of State for the Department for Energy and Climate Change, head-to-head with 10 SME players to discuss their views on decarbonising and investment in the UK’s renewable and energy efficiency sector. He argues that despite newspaper headlines, the Westminster political consensus is increasingly ‘green’ and discusses how the government plans to support SME’s in this area.
See the full transcript here.
Visit nw-businesssense.com/energy for more video content.
The New Jersey governor is widely tipped as a potential Republican nominee for the 2016 election. But as a recent scandal involving gridlock on a bridge shows, he's more like Richard Nixon than than Rudi Giuliani.
This article first appeared on newrepublic.com
The assessments of Chris Christie’s 2016 presidential prospects have too often overstated ideology and understated personality. There’s been much said and written about whether the New Jersey governor is too much of a “Northeastern moderate” to be acceptable to Republican primary voters in the Tea Party era. But this, it seemed to me, missed the point about Christie. Yes, he said nice things about President Obama after Hurricane Sandy, accepted the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion and even dared to defend a Muslim he nominated to a judgeship against accusations that he would implement Shariah law. But on plenty other issues, he was further right than many realised. He is no Rudy Giuliani-style apostate on immigration and gun control, having waffled on the former and blocked several gun restrictions passed by the Democratic legislature. He has opposed higher taxes on the wealthy to close the state’s yawning budget gaps. He refused to set up an exchange under the ACA. He cut funding for Planned Parenthood.
More importantly, whatever deviations Christie has made from the party line would, it has long seemed to me, be overcome by his knack for tapping into the conservative id on a visceral level, in ways that Giuliani never could – indeed, in ways that many of the seemingly more conservative 2016 contenders are unable to do. The scorn with which Christie lashes into, say, teachers’ union members lights up an emotional response from many rank-and-file Republicans that no checklist of issue-by-issue orthodoxy ever could.
But if Christie’s rough-edged rhetoric was going to help him bond with west-of-the-Delaware-River conservatives, the flipside of his Jersey personality has also loomed all along as his biggest vulnerability. In the lingo of the consultants, there was a question of whether Christie was plausibly “presidential.” He was not only aspiring to be the first heavily overweight commander in chief since William Howard Taft. He was someone who had – to name just a few instances – hollered at a former Navy Seal who dared to question him at a town hall meeting; got into a confrontation on a Jersey Shore boardwalk; and had this to say, over the microphone, to a female heckler yelling something about jobs at a Mitt Romney rally in New Hampshire: “You know something may go down tonight, but it ain’t gonna be jobs, sweetheart.” Yes, he really said that.
This is why the release of e-mails showing, in highly colorful terms, his office’s direct involvement in the closure of two local access lanes to the George Washington Bridge in September to punish the Fort Lee mayor, a Democrat, for not endorsing Christie is so damaging. Christie’s problem all along has not been that he would be seen as too Giuliani, but that he would be seen as too Nixon—a Republican whose curious ideological mix of moderation and conservatism is overshadowed by a toxic combination of insecurity and power-hungriness that leads to a politics of spite and retribution. Remember, Christie and his team were pulling all the stops last year to ring up Democratic endorsements and run up his vote tally in a re-election where his victory was never in doubt—just like a certain other chief executive's reelection 41 years earlier.
But neither re-election keeps people from being revolted at a guy who uses sleazy power-play tactics and has henchmen who throw around ethnic insults, as one of Christie's crew did about the "little Serbian" mayor of Fort Lee (who, it turns out, is actually Croatian).
No, I don’t believe this is necessarily the end of Christie’s presidential hopes, as Jonathan Chait argues– I am constitutionally averse to making predictions pro or con prospects with two years to go until the Iowa caucuses. And I’d also caution against overstating the facts at hand here: Christie’s people did not “close the George Washington Bridge,” as some reports are now suggesting – they shifted two of Fort Lee’s three rush-hour access lanes to the main flow of Interstate 95 traffic, thus causing horrific backups in Fort Lee but easing the main flow onto the bridge from I-95. It was, in that regard, a devious surgical strike.
But, we now know, too devious for its own good. There is something going down today—and it’s Chris Christie’s standing in the field of 2016 contenders.
This article first appeared on newrepublic.com
It is a moral duty as well as an economic necessity to do all we can to ensure that all young people are the best educated and well resourced in the world.
Liberal Democrats can be rightly proud of a number of things we’ve achieved in government, from taking millions of low-paid workers out of income tax and re-linking pensions to earnings, to helping children from low-income families via the Pupil Premium and introducing Equal Marriage. But it’s also true that some of our former voters have lost faith with us over some of the other things we’ve signed up to and we need to regain their trust.
We need to do that by setting out a clear vision of a Liberal Democrat Britain and what we would seek to do if given a further period of office. I believe the next great mission for the Liberal Democrats is clear. To give hope and the prospects of a brighter future to all of our young people.
Last week’s report by the Prince’s Trust, talking about the effects of long-term unemployment on young people, made for devastating reading. For those of us with a special interest in youth policy, it provides a salutary reminder- if one were needed - that the faltering economic recovery we are now starting to see has yet to be felt in many areas and by many people. The talents, enthusiasm and abilities of our young people are the best resource we have in our country. The country we’re building today- both its opportunities and its problems -will be inherited by them. It is, therefore, a moral duty as well as an economic necessity, to do all we can to ensure that all young people -whatever their background or current circumstances - are the best educated and well resourced in the world.
For its annual Youth Index, the Princes Trust interviewed 2,000 young people and their findings need not only to make national headlines - as they did last week- but also to ring alarm bells at the highest levels of both local and national government. They should be seen as a national emergency. The report states that almost a million young people are struggling to find a job across the UK, and that 40% of jobless young people have faced symptoms of mental illness as a result of being out of work.
It quotes a young lady, called Afsana, who says "I was unemployed for nearly three years. Being out of work stripped away my self-worth and I became severely depressed." It finds that one in three long-term unemployed young people have contemplated suicide and more than a quarter have experienced panic attacks. So providing new and better opportunities for young people is not only important for our country’s economic future but also for the wellbeing of the next generation.
Of course long-term youth unemployment is, tragically, nothing new. It has been steadily rising under successive governments but none have successfully, in a sustained way, addressed the problem. It has to be said, when it comes to the present coalition, that’s not for the want of trying. Thanks to Lib Dems being in government, the Youth Contract was introduced. Launched in April 2012, it will provide nearly half-a-million new opportunities for 18-to-24-year-olds, including apprenticeships and voluntary work experience placements. The scheme also marks a substantial increase in the support and help available to young people and offers potential financial incentives to firms that take on young people through JobCentre Plus or other government initiatives.
This is clearly a step in the right direction, but there has been some criticism of the Youth Contract not having had the take-up it should have done by now, so clearly there is work still to do in terms of getting the message out there to those who need to hear it most. Something else this government has done to make it easier for businesses to take on young people is to abolish employer National Insurance contributions for employees under 21 years of age. And, under the coalition, there has been a substantial rise in the number of apprenticeships being offered to young people and moves to make it much simpler for employers to take on apprentices.
Each of these is a substantial step forward and shouldn’t be underestimated. However, that much more needs to be done is clearly undeniable. Two specific things I, personally, would like to see happen are as follows. Firstly, a return to mandatory face-to-face Careers Advice in schools. Ofsted recently found that around 75% of schools are failing to provide adequate careers advice to students.
Due to changes forced through by Michael Gove, schools themselves are now responsible for arranging careers advice for year 9 to 11 pupils, after the regrettable disbanding of Connexions in 2012, it no longer has to be face-to-face. Ofsted’s report, published in September last year, stated that, "...too few schools are providing careers guidance that meets the needs of all their students." It went on, "Very few of the (sixty) schools visited knew how to provide a service effectively or had the skills and expertise needed to provide a comprehensive service. Few schools had purchased an adequate service from external sources." And, "The information students received about careers was too narrow. Too many students were unaware of the wide range of occupations and careers they might consider."
This clearly needs to change and quickly. We need to make sure that further education, vocational qualifications and apprenticeships are given the same level of priority as potential options for young people as is going to university.
And, secondly, that no young person is just abandoned to their fate. I’ve seen media reports and heard first-hand that - if they break certain rules put in place by the government through the Job Centre- then so-called NEETs (young people not in employment, education or training) are denied Jobseeker's Allowance and end up not being on any government list, not monitored, helped and so on.
Now, of course, we all have to take responsibility for our own behaviour in our lives and if we break rules there are always consequences, but the state should never just turn its back on young people. There must always be a lifeline, a chance for a young person who might have taken the wrong path to make a turning and have a chance of fulfilling their potential and becoming a productive member of society.
Our economy will not properly recover until we’ve got the scourge of youth unemployment not only under control, but put into reverse. Unemployment is never "a price worth paying." For the sake of a whole generation - and ones to come - we need to make tackling long-term youth unemployment a national mission. One that should be led by the Liberal Democrats.
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We expect too much of the inquest – they are inquisitorial, not adversarial, and cannot apportion blame.
The family of Mark Duggan are not the first to feel let down by an inquest.
But that is not the fault of the inquest, the coroner, or the jury who spent three months listening to evidence and seven days deliberating over their conclusions only to face abuse and threats when they made them known.
We expect too much of the inquest, and that stems from a lack of understanding about what they actually do.
I have sat on the press bench in many a coroner's court and all too often have seen bereaved families arrive expecting that someone will be taking the blame for the death of their relative. Even though every coroner I have seen patiently explains at the beginning of proceedings that blame is not what the inquest is about.
Inquests, as their name suggests, are inquisitorial, not adversarial. No-one is on trial, no-one is in the dock, save for those being tried in the so-called court of public opinion - which is where the Metropolitan Police found themselves during the Duggan inquest.
However, in the absence of any criminal proceedings, an inquest can provide a focus for friends and family of the deceased. This, they think, is where they will get at the truth of what happened.
That is what the families of 96 people who went to watch a football match at Hillsborough and never came home thought when they attended the first inquest into their deaths. It did not give them the answers they sought, and it has taken 25 years of campaigning, the work of the Hillsborough Independent Panel, and the commitment of a government minister, Andy Burnham, to get them any closer to justice.
Another Hillsborough inquest approaches, we will see in time whether it delivers the answers the families want.
Recent reforms have been instituted to update the coroner system, including a Chief Coroner, Peter Thornton; national standards and qualifications; support staff and training.
These changes came about in the wake of the murders committed by Harold Shipman, whose victims' deaths went unexamined by any coroner because the deaths were all explained on a death certificate issued by the very GP who murdered them.
But, even after reform, can a system that was established in 1194, as the Coroners' Society puts it, “as a medieval tax-gatherer” adequately investigate the circumstances of deaths at the hands of police officers?
Deaths inflicted by armed officers and deaths in custody, it could be argued, are a special case, worthy of a different kind of investigation, because any doubts about the inquiry can undermine our faith in the police.
Inquests in these circumstances do not have a satisfactory history, as those who remember Blair Peach will confirm. He was killed during an anti racism demonstration, probably by a blow from a police radio, yet an inquest returned a verdict of misadventure.
We have policing by consent in this country and if suspicions are allowed to fester then some sections of some communities, feeling victimised, may feel that consent is not deserved. As Met Commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe has himself said, the Met has to work to rebuild the confidence of some communities it polices.
This is not to criticise the coroner in the Duggan case, or the jury. It would seem likely that no conclusion other than one of unlawful killing would have satisfied the family and friends of the dead man.
While the officer who took the fatal shot may have acted lawfully, as the jury found, we cannot be complacent. An unarmed man was killed and a wider-ranging inquiry with greater powers and increased options to issue findings and recommendations might have better answered some of the concerns of Duggan's family.
Very, very few people are shot by police in the country, but significantly more die in custody. Still the overall numbers are relatively small and the time and costs involved in investigating them are inconsequential next to the need for public trust in the police. These deaths deserve the sort of inquiry that inspires public confidence, which is ultimately what we should all want, especially the police.
By rushing the implementation of the new scheme, the government risks leaving millions off the register.
This week, the Electoral Commission released proposals to clamp down on electoral fraud, requiring voters to show photographic ID at polling stations. Sensible measures to tackle fraud are welcome, but we should be careful not to further exacerbate the already woefully low levels of democratic engagement. There is real concern that the government’s current plans will make things worse.
The Electoral Commission themselves say there is no evidence to suggest that electoral fraud is widespread in the UK and there have been only a handful of convictions. Yet, we know that at the last general election, only 44% of young people voted. Millions of eligible voters are not even on the electoral register, which means they can’t vote and are not represented in the drawing of political boundaries. The 2011 Electoral Register, the last that can be directly compared with census data, showed the huge disparity in representation for different groups on the register. Around half of 19-24 years olds were not registered, compared to 6% of those aged over 65. Fewer people from BME communities were on the register compared to white people. 56% of people living in private rented homes were counted, compared to nearly 90% of homeowners.
Inevitably, there is a balancing act between protecting our elections from potential fraud but also encouraging as many people as possible to go out and vote. Most of the serious cases of fraud have been linked to the exploitation of postal voting, and the rules have been tightened. It’s important we don’t stifle electoral registration in the midst of understandable anxiety about fraud.
The last Labour government legislated for the introduction of Individual Electoral Registration, which is an important step in modernising the way we vote and protecting the system from exploitation. The change means individuals themselves will need to join the electoral register, instead of a single member of a household filling out the form for all inhabitants. Labour's approach was that the changes would be phased over a number of years, with numerous checks and balances to ensure levels of registration were high.
Yet the government are rushing the implementation of the new scheme, ignoring widespread concerns that by doing so, they risk leaving millions off the register. Individual Electoral Registration has now been piloted by the government, attempting to match people with data at the Department for Work and Pensions. The results only emphasise our fears. 8.7 million of the electorate could not be matched against the records held. Urban areas are losing out. An astonishing 26% of voters in London may not be eligible to vote in the Mayoral elections in 2016. Our young people will also suffer as the figures at our universities were remarkably low. In Lancaster University – an electoral ward – just 0.1% of the current electorate could be matched to the DWP database. All the statistics and evidence suggests that if we continue as we are, young, urban populations will be disproportionately affected by these dramatic changes. Yet the government continues to go ahead.
Labour has called on the government to delay the implementation process, giving local authorities, universities and electoral registration officers more time to ensure as many people as possible are involved and represented. It’s a good example of the importance of striking a balance when it comes to reforming our democratic processes. The move to Individual Electoral Registration is the right thing to do, and will help tackle fraud. But it must be delivered with care and by adopting a phased approach, to ensure as many people as possible are involved.
The electoral register performs a hugely important civic function. Beyond allowing our citizens the ability to vote, the register affects the wider political settlement and enables the selection of juries. We should try to ensure as many people as possible are registered, whilst maintaining vigilance about potential fraud.
When things are going well, the “private life” is deliberately on display for all to see. That is how the French presidency thrives.
François Hollande joins a long tradition of French Fifth republic Presidents who have had affairs. Widespread attachment to France’s privacy laws, and a press corps that generally agrees with them, combined with a generalised reverence for the office of the presidency have meant that rumours always remained largely rumours – until now.
In the past, gossip did no harm because there was always and still is a generally more indulgent attitude to affairs of the heart and tolerance of “liaisons” by both men and women (especially men). There has also been the conviction throughout French history that power is the strongest aphrodisiac both for those who exercise it and those fascinated by it.
The nearest Charles de Gaulle got to sexual scandal was his wife Yvonne being asked by an English reporter what was the most important thing in her life, to which she replied “A penis” (say “happiness” slowly with a French accent). But stories of sexual intrigue – probably secret service smears – surrounded the Pompidous.
But Valery Giscard d’Estaing set the tone, and he encouraged it, seeing himself as a true Don Juan. Rumours still abound of many liaisons – did he and the softcore star Sylvia Kristel have an affair in the Elysée? Who was the woman in the Ferrari he was with when, driving though Paris in the early hours, he hit a milk van? He even happily encouraged rumours about himself, for example, that a president just like him had an affair with a princess just like Diana.
Mitterrand was also linked to many women, including the editor of Elle, Françoise Giroud, the singer Dalida, and many more. Rumour became fact when he revealed he had raised a second secret family, and a secret daughter Mazarine, at the state’s expense. Ah les beaux jours!
The tone changed from the stylish and Romanesque to testosterone-fuelled vulgarity with Jacques Chirac, known by his chauffeur (and then the world) as “Mr 15 minutes, shower included”. His highly popular and respected wife, Bernadette Chirac, started a sea-change in attitudes when, in her best-selling autobiography, she wrote touchingly and honestly about how painful that aspect of her marriage had been.
Hollande’s predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy reportedly had affairs with journalists, including, allegedly Chirac’s daughter Claude, but his dalliances and his very public life with second wife Cécilia Sarkozy and later Carla Bruni were seen more as the uncontrollable passions of a (short) man with uncontrollable ambition, an uncontrollable temper, and an uncontrollable desire for attention and affection.
Even with that history behind thim there are five things which make Hollande’s alleged affair with the actress, Julie Gayet, sadly comical and politically dangerous. First is the sea-change mentioned earlier. Attitudes have shifted, not so much about sexual mores and the weaknesses of the flesh – in fact, with the decline in religious observance, things are even more liberal. But cheating on your wife or partner, with such intensity and frequency is seen – even in France – as sexist and the sign of a patriarchal society of inequality and disrespect. And sending your partner, Valérie Trierweiler, into hospital in a state of nervous collapse is not seen as the act of a man of integrity.
Second, Hollande came in to stop all this stuff. He was “Mr Normal” who was going to bring exemplary conduct to political life, and stop all the tabloid press gossip lowering the status of the presidency. He said so himself. In fact, his somewhat tortured relationships with former presidential candidate Ségolène Royal, Trierweiler, and now Gayet have never been out of the headlines.
Third, there is something comical and diminishing of the presidency in his slipping out not in a Ferrari but on the back of a scooter (driven by his chauffeur who also buys the croissants – you could not make this up), the easy victim of Closer paparazzi, Sébastien Valiela, waiting, camera at the ready, across the street.
Fourth, there is the question of security. Why does he need bodyguards all around him in public when he takes such risks in private? It was fortunate it was not an al-Qaeda hit squad on the other side of the street.
Finally, even before this incident, he was the most unpopular president of the Fifth Republic to date. If he had had any success with the unemployment figures or the stagnating economy since he had been elected, perhaps the French might think he deserved a night off; the French presidency is now like the post of a CEO whose full-time job it is to sort out France Inc, and the efficiency and health of its political and social institutions. Affairs at the office are no longer part of the job description.
Slow to catch up
French commentators in the political class and the media seem to be catching up with the significance of all these things very slowly. There seems to be a severe case of cognitive dissonance on their part regarding what is at stake here because, of course, the president does not have a private life like everyone else. He’s the president.
Besides, when things are going well, the “private life” is deliberately on display for all to see. That is how the French presidency thrives. Before his first press conference after the scandal broke which, for once, everybody watched, he had three choices regarding his very public affair: say something before, say something during, or say nothing. Each would be consequential in its effects.
He chose the last, almost, saying he would not answer questions on issues of his private life, but would respond in the coming days (before he – and Valérie – are scheduled to visit the Obamas in mid-February).
It is clear that he, and all the commentators, and the political class are now thinking about redefining the status of the French first lady. It is as if virtually the whole country is in in denial. Politics would be far better served if, rather than redefine the role and status of the first lady, France were to redefine the role and status of the presidency itself.
John Gaffney receives funding from The Leverhulme Trust