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Articles on this Page
- 01/16/14--02:09: _A river runs throug...
- 01/16/14--02:21: _The world of privat...
- 01/16/14--02:46: _Prince Hal and the ...
- 01/16/14--03:00: _The long tail cut s...
- 01/16/14--03:05: _The EU has provided...
- 01/16/14--03:12: _Why are crime drama...
- 01/16/14--03:28: _A presidential brom...
- 01/16/14--03:34: _Leader: What is nee...
- 01/16/14--03:39: _The Fan: Cristiano ...
- 01/16/14--03:40: _Squeezed Middle: Ha...
- 01/16/14--03:41: _Lez Miserable: Was ...
- 01/16/14--03:42: _The Returning Offic...
- 01/16/14--04:02: _Lost for words with...
- 01/16/14--04:11: _Floods and tidal su...
- 01/16/14--04:12: _A history of psycho...
- 01/16/14--04:14: _1952
- 01/16/14--04:17: _Miliband's big oppo...
- 01/16/14--04:24: _President Hollande'...
- 01/16/14--04:32: _Commons Confidentia...
- 01/16/14--04:48: _If Chris Christie w...
- 01/16/14--02:09: A river runs through it: Radio 3 looks at the tragedy of the Somme
- 01/16/14--02:21: The world of private mystery in John Craxton’s paintings
- 01/16/14--03:00: The long tail cut short: the economics of blockbuster capitalism
- 01/16/14--03:05: The EU has provided us with the best Europe we’ve ever had
- 01/16/14--03:12: Why are crime dramas like The Killing so hooked on rape?
- 01/16/14--03:28: A presidential bromance: Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft
- 01/16/14--03:34: Leader: What is needed is not a smaller but a smarter state
- 01/16/14--03:39: The Fan: Cristiano Ronaldo the tarnished icon
- 01/16/14--03:40: Squeezed Middle: Happy sodding New Year
- 01/16/14--03:42: The Returning Officer: Bournemouth
- 01/16/14--04:11: Floods and tidal surges: part of life in the British Isles
- 01/16/14--04:12: A history of psychology, warts and mysteries and all
- 01/16/14--04:14: 1952
- 01/16/14--04:17: Miliband's big opportunity is to unite the middle and working class
- 01/16/14--04:32: Commons Confidential: grin and Blair it
The Battle of the Somme has given the associated river a lasting infamy.
If only all of the BBC’s coverage of the First World War anniversary this year could be as tactful and interesting as Paul Farley’s documentary (5 January, 6.45pm). The Liverpudlian poet travelled to the River Somme in Picardy to find its source – a still and peaceful pool “with just a tiniest hint, a quiver of a current”. The name “Somme” (now a byword for the futility and wastefulness of war) comes from a Celtic term meaning “tranquillity”. The battle, which took place during the summer and autumn of 1916, has given the river a lasting infamy.
Farley travelled some of its 152 shape-shifting miles as it rises in the hills at Fonsommes near Saint-Quentin and flows quietly westward to empty into the English Channel, talking about the surrounding landscape and its sometimes wretched history. He was appallingly evocative about the launch of the German offensive in March 1918: the Stygian artillery barrage, the mustard and chlorine gas, the gluey spring fog and relentless shrapnel – a kind of industrial version of an arrow storm at Agincourt – and how the shock of it all would leave any new recruit in the trenches numb and sleepy, as though under anaesthetic.
For most of the programme, we heard an ambient trickling or rushing of the river and the sound of Farley’s boots trudging along it, with him speaking off the top of his head (at least it sounded like that) in his low, convivial voice. He kept using the phrase “I should tell you that”, politely conscious that we could not see what he could, leading us by the hand like someone murmuring into your ear.
Farley has form with documentaries about water – last year, he made Crossing the Bay, about Morecambe. Any child raised, as I was, near Lancashire knows of the black magic quality of Morecambe – the tides as fast as a galloping horse and sand that swallows up mail coaches and shrimp tractors. Farley’s on-location interviews and monologues were brimming with life.
He never gives us the “poet musing” bit – those sententious paragraphs you get all over programmes such as The Verb, which always sound flinch-worthily pre-prepared. Farley just sounds clear and rhythmic and natural, with a gift for the simple statement, making even the unimaginable intelligible.
Late lunches in Arcadia: rediscovering John Craxton’s sun-drenched Greek idylls.
Islands of edgy light: Galatas (1947)
This separation from his fellows was not just a question of taxonomy. From 1946 he lived largely in Greece, a place where, he wrote, “I find it’s possible to feel a real person – real people, real elements, real windows – real sun above all. In a life of reality my imagination really works. I feel like an émigré in London and squashed FLAT.” But in finding an authentic Arcadia in Crete he also distanced himself from the art and artists of the postwar world and so slipped out of the story. “A World of Private Mystery: John Craxton RA (1922-2009)”, a small but choice exhibition at the Fitzwilliam, is an overview and reminder of the career of this unfashionably joyous painter.
The first part of the exhibition shows his development as a largely self-taught artist who unashamedly drew on the work of those around him. Craxton tried out monochrome landscapes with schematic representations of himself as a poet-wanderer amidst burgeoning, spiky vegetation that were not just projections of Blake and Palmer but “my means of escape and a sort of self-protection”. He pastiched Sutherland when he accompanied him on a painting trip to Wales, and he grew close to Lucian Freud – personally and stylistically (both men liked to draw dead animals: Kenneth Clark recalled visiting them and finding a dead monkey hidden in their oven) – when they shared a flat in 1941.
The work of this period was likened by Wyndham Lewis to “a pretty tinted cocktail, that is good but does not kick quite hard enough”. It is an unduly dismissive judgement. Many of the pictures – take Hare in a Larder (1943) or Welsh Landscape with Sleeping Reaper (1944-45) – have a distinctive air of dream and enigma, even as Craxton searched for a style of his own.
He found that style in Greece. It not only lightened his palette but allowed him to use cubism’s fractured forms in a way that suited the sharpness of the light and the geometry of the landscape and houses. It was in Greece, too, that he developed his considerable skills as a portraitist. A spare and tender pencil drawing of Freud was followed by a series showing neighbours, friends and the characterful types he found at taverna tables. Soulful and full-frontal, the pictures have an immediate presence, sometimes using cubism’s lozenges, other times pared down and naturalistic. He would, he said, allow the image of his subject “into my personality and then draw it unconsciously”.
Dark and fecund lands: Llanthony Abbey (1942)
It was, though, the Greek way of life that entranced him. He saw the country and its people as representatives of an ancient way of life and he depicted them fringed with colour, bound by red and yellow outlines. Goatherds (he was a great painter of goats, “demonic, wilful and undisciplined”) and sailors in their white-and-blue uniforms were favourite motifs. One of his most unaffectedly pleasurable paintings is a colour-saturated image of three sailors eating a meal of prawns, squid, sardines and salad that is mouth-watering in every sense. When he painted panoramas of Hydra or Crete’s gorges he became near-abstract, reducing the scenes to flattened and highly patterned assemblages of coloured lines that bear the imprint of Byzantine mosaics.
A man of great charm, Craxton became friends with Patrick Leigh Fermor in Greece and it is through his drawings for the scholar-traveller’s dust jackets that he is now best known. Other friends included Margot Fonteyn and Frederick Ashton, and Raymond Mortimer (this magazine’s former literary editor), with whom he once smoked a joint in Toscanini’s private box at La Scala.
Craxton’s pictures were not always as popular with the critics, both because they stood outside the avant-garde and because, in their sun-drenched colours, they had the smack of, as a friend described it, “taking shape very slowly between late lunches and early drinks”. Yet these are not necessarily faults. In original hands – Craxton’s – they are merits.
Until 21 April
John Craxton: A World of Private Mystery
Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
Prince Harry set off for the South Pole in early December, accompanied by the obligatory entourage of limbless ex-servicemen (and women), the aim being to show that limbless ex-servicemen (and women), and lame unemployed princes, are all capable of inspirational levels of achievement.
No, I only put on my judgemental hat for a crowd of one nutter: Prince Harry. He set off for the South Pole in early December, accompanied by the obligatory entourage of limbless ex-servicemen (and women), the aim being to show that limbless ex-servicemen (and women), and lame unemployed princes, are all capable of inspirational levels of achievement. It’s difficult to know where to begin when it comes to unpicking this giant bezoar – or should I say pseudo-bezoar – that’s stuck in the British gastrointestinal tract.
In a country in which ex-servicemen (and women) – whether limbless or not – have disproportionately high levels of all the following: unemployment, mental illness, drug and alcohol addiction, homelessness and familial breakdown, how on earth is the realisation that Prince Hal and pals have made it to the pole going to help one jot?
What these folk need are decent job prospects, homes at genuinely affordable rents and consistent welfare. What they get is the capricious compassion of charity and the example of “achievements” confabulated for them out of the most threadbare tropes of imperialist delusion. For the British loyalist the South Pole will always remain a proving ground: we was robbed – they still madly and impotently believe – by a gang of horn-heads who had the temerity to go properly equipped, using effective techniques (most of them learned, mark you, from the lowly Eskimos) that included that ultimate atrocity: feeding their sledge dogs to . . . their other sledge dogs. Damn it all, you cannot possibly consider a man who’ll watch such dog-on-dog action any kind of adventurer – let alone a victorious gentleman.
So it is that even after half a century of painstaking revisionism by the likes of Roland Huntford, the Scott debacle remains embedded in the national gut as a splendid example of pluck, fortitude and self-sacrifice, instead of a criminal one of officer-class arrogance, cravenness and homicidal ineptitude. But the really important thing to remember about this ill-fated expedition is that it prefigured, in miniature, the grotesque “sacrifice” of British lives that came two years later in the killing fields of Flanders, where the manufacture of limbless ex-servicemen was conducted as if on an assembly line. Perhaps the most pitiful addendum to the whole sorry business of British polar exploration was the fate of Shackleton’s men, who, having survived the loss of their ship in the Weddell Sea in August 1914, made it across the pack ice to Elephant Island, from the isolate wastes of which they were finally saved, only for many of them to return to Europe just in time to get killed in the First World War.
This year will be wall-to-wall remembrance, and the British state, which excels in co-opting dissident voices to its oxymoronic ideology of post-imperial imperialism, will have a field day propagating the bizarre double bind that while the First War was a dreadful business, it nevertheless produced some excellent poetry, and of course it remains the case that Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. Seen from this angle, His Dumbness was simply the vanguard of a great horde of bonkers militarists. We’re at a curious juncture in our island story: despite being defeated in almost all the theatres it has engaged in over the past decade, the British army has never been held in higher popular esteem. This isn’t down to state, it’s a function of a populace who subconsciously view our troops not as puissant warriors fighting for a noble cause but charity cases in the making, just like themselves.
This story of economics is not completely convincing, but a credible and interesting one: that big companies have tamed the market anarchy of the internet.
The argument was that the internet had made it easier for consumers to buy specialised products. As they pursued their niche interests, the market would fragment. Customers would turn away from the big hits favoured by conventional retailers and create a sales chart with a long, fat and potentially very profitable tail. The Long Tail offered today’s geeks their own version of that slogan of the 1960s, “Stick it to the man.” It was a new way of breaking the power of the big corporations.
And it failed. Anita Elberse’s Blockbusters is the formal announcement of the death of The Long Tail’s premise. In its place is the old chart showing a few big hits and a million misses, a world dominated by the might not of people, but of money. “All in all,” she writes, “although advances in digital technologies may at first blush seem to have a ‘democratising’ influence, in reality they tend to have the opposite effect: they foster concentration and a winner-takes-all dynamic.” So much for sticking it to the man. As Elberse is a professor at Harvard Business School, we can take it that this was never on her agenda. That does not, however, compromise the truth of what she argues and the research that has gone into making the case.
She starts in 1999, when Alan Horn, the then president of Warner Brothers, decided to aim for four or five “tent-pole” (mega-budget) movies a year. The remaining 20 or so films would have to sink or swim, with buoyancy provided by much smaller marketing and star budgets. It worked. Thanks to the Harry Potter films, The Hangover, The Dark Knight, Ocean’s Eleven and a few others, for over a decade Warner took $1bn at the US box office every year – a record. Meanwhile, over at NBC, Jeff Zucker pursued the reverse strategy with middle-cost, middle-risk television shows. He failed.
There are dozens of similar stories in this book, all from the entertainment industries (sport plays a big part). This leaves the question: why is “blockbusterism” true now and “longtailism” dead? (I stress “now” here because modern business books have a very narrow window in which their ideas appear to be true – probably only a few years – as capitalism is dynamic and it is in the nature of markets to seek profits by opposing the prevailing wisdom.)
Elberse has many answers to the question (too many, in fact) but the overriding point is that the rewards of successful high-investment products swamp anything that can be made out of the long tail or even the medium-long tail. Anderson was wrong because, it turns out, people do not seek out niche products on any significant scale.
Perhaps one of the most devastating instances of this is music downloads, once the great hope of stick-it-to-the-man idealists. In 2011, of the eight million tracks sold in North America, 95 per cent sold fewer than 100 copies and 32 per cent sold only one copy each. Lady Gaga, Maroon 5, Jay-Z, Rihanna and the other superstars wiped the floor with the wannabes. “The level of concentration in these markets,” Elberse writes with a statistician’s fervour, “is so astounding, in fact, that it is nearly impossible to depict the demand curve: it disappears entirely into the axes.”
That seems clear but many of the other examples in this book are less so. She contrasts the business models of the world’s leading football clubs. So Boca Juniors in Buenos Aires finance themselves by generating talent and trying to sell one player a year to the gold mines of the European leagues. Real Madrid pursue a ruthless policy of paying top dollar for the best players, Gareth Bale being the latest example. Barcelona devote resources to local player development. Elberse goes into immense detail about how these clubs can be seen to be pursuing blockbuster policies, but the thesis doesn’t quite work.
This is evidence of a degree of “Gladwellisation” – the telling of good stories that are then unconvincingly retrofitted into an overarching thesis. Nevertheless, the general point is credible: that big companies have tamed the market anarchy of the internet. When we think of the web now, we don’t think of a bustling marketplace of small traders; we think of Google, Amazon, Apple and Facebook. The gold rush has turned into the same old land-grab.
What is not Gladwellish about this book is that, in spite of Elberse’s breezy tone, there is no happy ending. The evisceration of the music industry that lies behind those download figures is a sad tale, told elsewhere by the great Silicon Valley apostate Jaron Lanier, and only a fool would regard the mindless pursuit of identikit blockbusters as anything other than a disaster for the film industry. Luckily, directors such as Wes Anderson and the Coen brothers have worked out a way to survive with medium-sized budgets that do not require them to be sucked into the philistine maw of the marketing department. Art happens with or without the backing of business books. But if, like Chris Anderson, you thought a better world was riding in on the back of broadband, you were, I am afraid, wrong.
Bryan Appleyard tweets as @bryanappleyard
Far from giving a voice to the people, the point of an EU referendum is to give a voice to a section of the Conservative Party.
We hear about the tactics of a referendum on membership of the European Union but little about the points of principle and substance that it raises. We need to look at these, too, otherwise we could sleepwalk into something stupid.
Why does David Cameron want a referendum on Europe?
That is simple. It is for the same reason as Harold Wilson proposed one in 1975: to deal with his divided party by appealing to higher authority. There is no popular demand for a referendum, but if you ask people in opinion polls whether they want to have a vote on EU membership, you can get a positive answer; if you backed a poll with a media campaign, you could probably get the same answer on many questions.
We have not seen large demonstrations demanding a referendum. Indeed, most voters do not care much about the EU: it comes somewhere between tenth and 15th in the issues voters list as important. Even for Ukip voters, the EU is not the most important question.
The big demand for a referendum comes from those in the Conservative Party who want to leave the EU but can’t see a way to get a majority in parliament for it. Cameron himself probably doesn’t want to take Britain out of Europe; hence his policy of trying to put this off until after the next election, in the hope that something may turn up.
Cameron’s position, though not noble, is understandable – it reflects weakness. It is less easy to understand why some in the Labour Party want to imitate it. Is it because they are afraid of the proposition that “the British people should have the right to choose”? This leads to a second question.
Are referendums a good way to make decisions?
This is also easy to answer: no. It is shameful that few political leaders are ready to say so. Democracy is not just about voting. It is also about debate and about responsibility.
Debate is necessary to understand complex issues. We invented representative democracy because debate is time-consuming and it is not practical in a modern state to assemble the whole population in market squares to debate issues. (In Athens the people were able to do this because citizens were few and they had helots and women to do the work.) Under the system of government “by the people”, the people choose the government and then hold it accountable when they don’t like what it does. If referendums are “more democratic” than decisions by parliament, why not make decisions about taxation or electricity prices by referendum, as has been tried in California (and then the lights went out)? When bad decisions are made in this way, who takes responsibility?
For years, both parties resisted calls for a referendum on capital punishment because they feared there would be a majority in favour of it. Over time and through long debates, parliament became convinced by the evidence that capital punishment had no deterrent value and that innocent people had been hanged. Yet they feared that, in a referendum, the debate would be shallow and voters would follow prejudice rather than the evidence.
The referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV) showed how difficult it can be to generate a serious debate on matters that are important but complicated where mastery of the detail demands time.
Yes, but shouldn’t we decide constitutional questions by referendum?
We seem to be drifting towards this idea. Recently on the Today programme in a discussion about some question of British institutions (it may have been the size of the House of Lords), one of the presenters said: “But isn’t this the sort of thing we’d have to have a referendum on?” We don’t have to have a referendum on anything unless parliament decides to call one.
If we did decide that constitutional change required a referendum, we would have to start by defining what was and what was not a constitutional question. Many laws – on race relations, capital punishment, the franchise and electoral systems, abortion – might or might not be part of a constitution.
Our present system of making no distinction between constitutional and other law gives us a flexible system. Usually constitutions are written as though they were going to last for ever; they never do. Some of the most important parts of the US constitution are in the amendments to it; yet now it seems impossible to secure further amendment. So the Supreme Court ends up doing a job that belongs in the political and not in the legal arena.
The sovereignty of parliament is a good principle because it allows maximum space for political decision-making and maximum opportunity for debate on issues that are always complex. It is alarming that no one, including those in the party of Edmund Burke, seems ready to defend this principle.
In 1975 they did better. A powerful speech was made opposing the Wilson referendum by the new leader of the opposition, Margaret Thatcher. Since then parliament seems to have lost confidence in itself. So, we might ask:
What has gone wrong with parliament?
This is less easy to answer. There is a growing feeling of separation between the mass of the people and the so-called political class. The Conservative Party’s very obsession with the EU illustrates this. Far from giving a voice to the people, the point of a referendum is to give a voice to a section of the Conservative Party.
One reason why people feel less represented by the House of Commons is that the two big parties are less representative of the people than they used to be. In the 1950s the Conservative Party had three million members and the Labour Party one million, together with an organic link to a broadly based trade union movement. Both parties were social as well as political organisations. They reflected a society more sharply divided and less diverse than today’s; but between them they were representative of the population in a way that their successors today are not.
Having parties that are dominant (because of the electoral system) but weak (because they are disconnected from society) together with a chamber strong on party discipline and adversarial politics is not an attractive combination. It is only on the rare occasions when this breaks down – as recently over Syria – that we get a little of the thrill of democracy in action.
And so what is to be done?
We ought to understand democracy as an evolutionary process. We are lucky to have a constitution that makes change easy. Constitutions need to keep in step with an evolving society.
In the 65 years between 1880 and 1945 we went through several constitutional revolutions. In the 65-plus years since 1945, however, not much has changed, at least not compared to the vast and sweeping changes in British society.
An open debate is needed. My own answers would be to effect a change in the electoral system to make politics more competitive, and to make parties more open to influence from the voters. Add a House of Lords chosen by lottery, as juries are. This would require some thought and reorganisation. But it would give us two houses, each representing the people in a different sense of the term “represent”.
Churchill’s remark that the best argument against democracy is a three-minute conversation with the average voter is apposite as an argument against referendums: three minutes of conversation or consideration is no way to make sense of anything. But a representative sample of the electorate, free from party whips and debating issues that matter to ordinary people, would breathe new life into parliament.
While we are at it we should do something about the funding of political parties. The present non-system brings unhealthy relations with the few, and the distrust of the many. How about a system in which all taxpayers could allocate a tiny part of their taxes, either to the government budget of their choice – health, education, development, defence – or to a political party? Plus strict limits on donations.
The chances of such a radical programme are not great. Those in power often think that the arrangements which got them there must, ipso facto, be a good thing. Yet the renewal of states very often begins with renewal of institutions.
Such changes would be experiments. Put them in place for ten years, with a sunset clause; then debate them again. In the end, democracy is one long experiment.
But this is straying from the main subject.
Wouldn’t a referendum settle the question of the EU once and for all?
No. If that were the case, it would have been settled by the 1975 referendum – when two-thirds of the British voters elected to remain in the EU.
Those who want to leave now argue that we were tricked, or that Britain has changed since then, or that the EU has changed. These arguments will be available again whenever anyone wants to use them.
Is that all? No. We should also fear the referendum because it might end in Britain leaving the European Union.
Probably some of those who tell opinion pollsters that they would vote to leave would think again if the question became real. But the conditions are different from those of 1975. The leading figures opposing membership then were from the fringes (Peter Shore, Enoch Powell, Tony Benn) and the media were almost unanimously in favour. Now we have had ten years of the drumbeat of media opposition.
Referendums are unpredictable – never a good way to govern a country – and we might end up out. That would be stupid.
In broad terms there are three ways of looking at the EU. On a practical level, the main product of the EU is regulation. There is good regulation and bad regulation; but there is no escape. No one is going to buy British products that do not meet international standards. Those standards are set mostly by the EU or the US. If the UK wants to be at the table when the standards are set it has to belong to the EU; otherwise it will have to follow regulations that someone else has made.
From the point of view of realpolitik, which is the usual British way of thinking about foreign policy, a permanent coalition of European states to which we did not belong is the nightmare of British policymakers through all the ages, as I think Douglas Hurd once said. Happily, today this would not be a coalition that would threaten British security, but it might be tempted from time to time to take economic advantage of the UK’s absence to organise things in ways that suited their interests and not ours. In fact, it would be a surprise if it didn’t. Ask Norway; or look at how the EU developed in Britain’s absence from 1956 to 1973.
Or, if you believe (as I do) that international politics does not always have to be about the balance of power, the EU (with its twin, Nato) is, for all its faults, a kind of political miracle: the most successful collaboration among sovereign states ever achieved. In spite of the mess of the euro, it is still admired and imitated on other continents. This is the best Europe we have ever had; and Britain, as an influential member, has been a force for good in it. Both altruism and self-interest tell us to remain.
These three perspectives – which are not contradictory – all point to one conclusion. Much in the EU needs to be fixed. With 28 sovereign states around the table, that will be a slow and clumsy process. But the euro crisis has brought a more sober mood and the advocates of unending integration in every area are a dying breed.
There could not be a better moment to work with others for a programme of reform. That would make sense. A referendum makes none. l
Robert Cooper worked for Javier Solana and Catherine Ashton at the EU until last year. He is a visiting professor at the London School of Economics and a member of the European Council on Foreign Relations
It's not just the “Nordic noir” phenomenon, though - TV shows like CSI and NCIS seem to find it hard to get through a 60-minute episode without making reference to at least one mutilated female corpse.
We know Stieg Larsson’s first bestselling novel as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and there was a time when you could see it everywhere. For years it felt impossible to get on a bus or train without counting at least three copies being tensely devoured within five feet of your seat. What few of Larsson’s British fans knew is that the original Swedish title of the book was Män som hatar kvinnor, meaning “men who hate women” – a phrase that seems to have become the guiding principle for a whole genre.
Sexual violence, especially against women, is by no means the exclusive property of the “Nordic noir” phenomenon that has dominated the UK’s bestseller lists and TV screens for the past few years. Many crime dramas, but particularly the US procedurals such as the NCIS and CSI franchises, seem to find it hard to get through a 60-minute episode without making reference to at least one mutilated female corpse.
It spreads well beyond crime and police drama – in the fantasy epic Game of Thrones it’s difficult to find a point to tune in when you won’t immediately see a gratuitous pair of breasts or a heavily implied rape.
Sexual violence against women is everywhere, once you start seeing it. The inclusion of the rape or the beating of a woman in a plot has become lazy dramatic shorthand for “gritty” and there is no obvious male equivalent. Even worse are the times you wonder if the writers are trying to titillate.
Perhaps it is because the imported Scandinavian dramas overall tend to be far less prone to the misogyny that still permeates much of our popular culture that their focus on violence against women feels so incongruous. When you have skilled writers turning out otherwise thrilling plots that put fascinating female characters in positions of authority, it’s frustrating that they feel the need to drop in the occasional violent rape just to make sure we notice how “noir” everything is.
For instance, the writers of the Danish series The Killing gave us a wonderful female authority figure in Sarah Lund, who is a better detective than her male colleagues and has a deeply complicated personal life, too. But the first series also opens with a long sequence of a woman sprinting through a wood, only for her to be found brutally raped and murdered in the next scene. Was the rape necessary to the twists and turns of the murder investigation that follows? Why isn’t her violent death alone sensational enough?
The first series of the Danish-Swedish co-production The Bridge similarly opened with a mutilated female corpse, found in two pieces on the bridge of the title. So far, so expected.
And yet it is The Bridge’s second series that gives hope that the flood of female corpses could finally be drying up. The new series, which is airing on BBC4 at the moment, began with two hours of compelling television that was by turns tense, moving and witty. Even better, not a single woman had to be sacrificed to the cause of sensationalist violence. There were female victims, to be sure, but they were treated identically to their male counterparts, and at no point did the plot suffer as a consequence. Take note, writers – it can be done.
The long association of two rock-ribbed Republicans was a political friendship that defined an era of American political history.
There he is, the third from the left, tucked into a cleft between Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln, carved into the granite of Mount Rushmore. No one today doubts his right to be there. His reputation and popularity are undimmed by a century’s passing. He was the youngest man to assume the American presidency. He was a cowboy, a swimmer, an asthmatic. He had a dazzling smile, with teeth like pieces of Chiclets gum. He fought in Cuba, leading a charge up San Juan Hill to give the Spanish a licking. A 50-page wad of speech notes in his pocket once saved him from an assassin’s bullet. He turned the Grand Canyon into a national monument. He built the Panama Canal. He won the Nobel Peace Prize. He was a Republican but a mortal enemy of giant corporations. The teddy bear was named after him.
He also gave Doris Kearns Goodwin the perfect title. In 1909, he declared that the White House was a “bully pulpit”, the finest means of getting his message out to his people – at home, the “square deal” (protecting citizens and curbing plutocracy); abroad, the “big stick” (“Speak softly and carry a big stick”). Goodwin, now accepted as the publicly anointed biographer of great American statesmen, no doubt had more than enough material to load several shelves with the tumultuous story of Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th US president. But wisely, over the seven years of her project, she decided to weave into the fabric of this robust, endearing life two further threads, each equally important, making this a vastly more important work, a masterpiece of modern American history.
One thread, noted in the subtitle of the book, concerns the role played by journalism and by a manner of writing that, during Roosevelt’s governance, displayed an excellence that has been seldom matched since. Samuel Sidney McClure’s eponymous monthly magazine, which gave voice to writers such as Ida Tarbell and Lincoln Steffens, marked an all too brief period of literary glory. It also enabled Roosevelt, who had a canny and trusting appreciation for the muckraking press, to employ the industry for, as he saw it, the greater public good.
“By sharing the full context of each decision and appointment before it became public,” Goodwin writes of her subject’s time as state governor of New York, “Roosevelt trusted that Steffens would credit and document the complex, pragmatic manoeuvring behind an ethical and effective approach to leadership.”
Cynics might suggest that, as president, he had journalists such as Steffens in the palm of his hand and may ascribe his enduring popularity to his excellent personal PR. Yet more thoughtful analysts (Goodwin among them) would argue otherwise: that in a climate markedly more trusting than today’s, good relations between press and government could be made to work to universal advantage – provided that the muckrakers did indeed rake much muck, as Tarbell and her colleagues consistently did.
The other thread that Goodwin weaves into this story – and that forms an important component of the book’s US subtitle but is puzzlingly overlooked in Viking’s British edition – concerns a most poignant counterpoint to Roosevelt’s generally triumphant life: the melancholy fate of his long-time friend, protégé and successor as president, William Howard Taft.
The sorry tale of Taft deserves to be remembered if only because of its many parallels with what appears to be happening in Washington today. Just like Barack Obama, Taft began his public career as a man suffused with promise and optimism. He was born of a solid Cincinnati family a year before Roosevelt. He went to Yale; Roosevelt went to Harvard. Both became lawyers.
The men first met when they were near neighbours in Washington, as they were beginning their very different climbs to the high ranges of power. Their philosophies were at the time markedly similar, yet quite out of tune with the times, in that both were superficially rock-ribbed Republicans but aflame with progressive principles. They were fiscally conservative, born into fortunes; they were, however, socially liberal and infused with populist beliefs. Each was an unalloyed admirer of the benefits of capital; but each wished for an end to the era’s fondness for cronyism and corruption. Each was a firm believer in American exceptionalism; each saw it as the duty of America to export its benefits to the world.
For a while, however, their paths diverged. Roosevelt went to Albany as governor of New York and then became William McKinley’s running mate in his successful 1900 election. Taft, meanwhile, was far off in Manila as the governor general of the newly colonised Philippines.
In 1901, McKinley was assassinated – an event that gave Roosevelt, quite unexpectedly, the presidency. One of his first acts was to bring his old friend Taft smartly back from the tropics, instal him in Washington as secretary of war and groom him to be an eventual successor, the keeper, as he saw it, of the progressive flame. Roosevelt intended to serve two terms and then hand his torch to Taft.
As Goodwin recounts with flair and sympathy, the torch was soon extinguished. Taft, who generally scorned the press and followed the letter of the law with pedantry and a wholesale lack of imagination, turned out to be something of a dud in the Oval Office (which he built). With one dithering decision after another, he managed to vex and disappoint all of his supporters, much as the beleaguered President Obama appears to be doing today. In the end he fell out with his old friend Roosevelt, who became for many years a political enemy – Roosevelt fought against him in the 1912 election, splitting the Republican vote and giving the White House to Woodrow Wilson.
And yet, politics aside, both were wise and decent men and they eventually buried the hatchet. In one of the more moving passages of this lively and very human book, Goodwin recounts their celebrated meeting in 1918 in the dining room of a Washington hotel. Taft heard that his old friend was alone and “spotted the colonel at a small table by the corner window. ‘Theodore!’ he exclaimed. ‘I am glad to see you.’ Roosevelt rose from his seat and grasped Taft’s shoulders. ‘Well, I am indeed delighted to see you. Won’t you sit down?’ All across the room, customers rose from their dinners and the wait-staff paused . . . Suddenly the chamber erupted into applause.”
Roosevelt died soon afterwards but there was still much life left in Taft, who, after a period at Yale, became chief justice of the Supreme Court – he remains the only man to have held both of these highest offices of the republic. To some extent, Taft recovered from the disappointments of his presidency.
We can only wonder whether Obama will manage to do the same. One thing is certain: neither will receive the Mount Rushmore treatment, even if there were another cleft in the granite.
If George Osborne was a principled fiscal conservative he would have proposed reducing expenditure on pensioners. Yet, for entirely political reasons, he refuses to countenance the withdrawal of universal benefits from the wealthiest pensioners.
For a government seeking to reduce public spending, there is no easier target than welfare. Polls show that British voters overwhelmingly favour reduced benefit levels, and the poor cannot deploy armies of lobbyists to plead their cause. So it was disingenuous for George Osborne to boast in his speech on 6 January of confronting “hard truths” when he promised £12bn of further welfare cuts from 2015-2017.
Equally cynical was his decision to signal that the young would be targeted first, with the abolition of housing benefit for under-25s. Were he a principled fiscal conservative, he would have proposed reducing expenditure on pensioners, who accounted for £107.6bn of last year’s £201.8bn social security budget. Yet, for entirely political reasons, he refuses to countenance the withdrawal of universal benefits, such as free bus passes, free television licences and the winter fuel allowance, from the wealthiest pensioners. Less wealthy pensioners should of course be protected.
At the same time, he has pledged to maintain the “triple lock” on the state pension, so that it rises in line with whichever is higher – inflation, earnings or 2.5 per cent – while capping working-age benefit increases at 1 per cent. With the over-65s more likely to vote than any other age group (76 per cent turned out in 2010, compared to 44 per cent of 18-to-24-year-olds), the need for the Conservatives to win back thousands of these voters from the UK Independence Party takes precedence over the need for deficit reduction.
Mr Osborne’s greatest act of conjuring was to create an artificial divide between the “hard-working people” who pay taxes and the “feckless” who claim benefits. That it is the working poor who are increasingly reliant on tax credits to subsidise low wages and housing benefit to compensate for extortionate rents is a “hard truth” the Chancellor refuses to acknowledge. As the Joseph Rowntree Foundation recently reported, in perhaps the grimmest statistic from the age of austerity, more than half of all children and adults living in poverty are now from working households.
If the Chancellor’s Labour and Liberal Democrat critics are right to assail him for all of this, they cannot ignore the indisputable truth that Britain remains a significantly poorer country than it was before the financial crash. The Office for Budget Responsibility has revised its national growth forecasts upwards but its estimate of the size of the structural deficit (the part of the deficit that persists regardless of the level of economic output) is no better than before, at 4.4 per cent of GDP.
For Mr Osborne, this is a licence for permanent austerity and a major reduction in the size and scope of the state. While politically sensitive areas such as the NHS, schools and pensions are ring-fenced from cuts, all other departments will be reduced to their smallest size since 1945. Yet it is not a radically smaller state that Britain needs but a smarter and more competent one.
A smarter state would invest more in pro-growth areas that support lasting prosperity, such as infrastructure, skills, job creation and childcare. It would focus on prevention rather than cure, by switching spending from housing benefit to housebuilding and by incentivising the use of the living wage, rather than subsidising poverty wages. If the short-term costs are higher, so are the long-term savings.
A smarter state would begin to shift the tax burden over time from income towards wealth, most notably property and land. Wealth taxes are progressive and harder to avoid than those on income; they benefit the economy by shifting investment away from housing and into wealth-creating industries.
No one can now accuse the Conservative Party of concealing its true intentions and vision for the future. It is one in which, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies has said, the burden of austerity falls hardest on the working-age poor and those most in need. The danger is that a pessimistic electorate concludes that all this remains a necessary corrective to years of Labour profligacy.
To forestall this outcome, Mr Osborne’s opponents must put forward with no less conviction their own accounts of the state and how they would protect the poorest while also displaying fiscal responsibility. Gordon Brown once spoke of “prudence for a purpose”. It was not a bad slogan.
Ronaldo has had a good going over from the Portuguese mainland press in recent years, there is much scandal and intrigue to talk about.
Will Cristiano Ronaldo win the Ballon d’Or, Fifa’s award for best player of the year, which will be announced on 13 January? Oh, I do hope so. It will set the seal on his plan to establish a museum to himself. Long overdue, if you ask me.
I have always thought tourist boards are missing a trick. We can all go to Stratford-upon-Avon and gape at Shakespeare’s birthplace, or Malaga and walk round Picasso’s home, but what about our modern heroes, the living legends whose faces are known all over the globe? Surely they should have shrines we can visit.
About ten years ago, on hols in Guadeloupe, I persuaded my wife to join me on a rickety little boat trip to the island of La Désirade – because I’d read that this was where the family of Thierry Henry had come from. I found the house, but no plaque on the door. Shocking.
In Madeira recently I set off to find the birthplace of its most famous son, Cristiano Ronaldo dos Santos Aveiro, born in Funchal in 1985. The Ronaldo bit, apparently, was in honour of his father’s favourite Hollywood actor, Ronald Reagan. His mother, Dolores, was a cook and his father a municipal gardener, a job that will always provide work in Funchal, with its luxuriant flowers and trees.
I found a taxi driver and we headed for the suburb of Santo António, where Ronaldo was born. The driver said it would probably be social housing, ie, some sort of council estate. Almost all footballers are born in tough, working-class areas, unless they are second-generation, like Frank Lampard, who went to public school.
I expected a concrete block but we came to a pretty street, with cottage-style houses covered in vines and plants, on a nice hillside. We stopped a woman who said, yes, she knew Cristiano as a little boy – very polite. Then she made a yapping sound with her fingers: talked too much. She directed us to what turned out to be a car park. His birth house has been knocked down. They’ll regret it, oh yes . . .
I went to a nearby snooker club and bar, Clube Quinta Falcão, where Ronaldo goes when he is on the island. It then gets closed to the public, reserved for him and his friends. I admired a signed Ronaldo Man United shirt framed and hanging on a wall. The woman behind the bar seemed nervous and worried, didn’t want to talk about him or his family.
Ronaldo has had a good going over from the Portuguese mainland press in recent years, first after his father died aged 52 of alcohol-related liver problems and more recently when Ronaldo admitted he had a baby son whom he is bringing up with the help of his mother. His son’s mother, said to be an American waitress, has not been named but is thought to have been given £10m to keep quiet.
They were much friendlier a few streets away at the little football club, Andorinha, which Ronaldo joined at the age of eight and where his father used to be the kit man. It was a Saturday and the pitch was filled with children of all ages doing training, watched by mums and dads sitting on benches admiring their offspring, wondering if they would end up earning £50m a year for kicking a ball around. Outside was a large notice that proclaimed, “You are the best” (“És o Maior”) above a photo of Ronaldo – in Man United strip.
The location and details of Ronaldo’s proposed museum to himself in Funchal have not yet been revealed, but he already has his own glitzy boutique. It’s called CR7 – after his initials and team number – and feels exactly like a leftover from Carnaby Street in the 1960s, with shagpile carpets, glitter and bling.
Before I paid off the taxi driver, I asked why all over Funchal there were so many images of Ronaldo in a Man United shirt, when he has been with Real Madrid since July 2009.
“We don’t like Real Madrid or the Spanish,” he said. “They look down upon the Portuguese and are our rivals. We liked it best when he played for Manchester United.”
See, you don’t just learn about football on a Footballer’s Birthplace Tour but national and cultural difference, too.
Until now, my New Year’s resolution to be more thrifty had been going so well. Then came the soft-play centre . . .
New Year celebrations in London. Photo: Getty.
“Please pay £15.” I stare at the screen for a few seconds, hoping that a missing decimal point will appear and make everything all right. It doesn’t. The car park ticket machine really is asking me for 15 quid. I run through a few of the things I could have done with that money: bought a round of drinks, had a haircut, a train ride to the seaside. I could have invested in seven and a half National Lottery tickets and won a rollover jackpot and retired to a beachfront mansion in Honolulu.
Until now, my New Year’s resolution to be more thrifty had been going so well. Today, the kids and I went to a soft-play centre, for free, and then to the Lego shop, where Larry spent hours making Lego men, for free. I even managed to bring a packed lunch. I bought a pair of shoes for Moe, half price in the sales, and nobly resisted buying a nice pair of furry boots for myself.
And now this. If we’d got back five measly minutes earlier the car park would have cost only a fiver, but Larry tripped up on the escalator and hurt his knee and howled until I had administered an emergency dose of chocolate buttons, and by that time we had exceeded the four-hour limit. There is no arguing with the merciless blue face of the ticket machine, Gritting my teeth, I insert my card and type in the Pin.
“What’s the matter, Mummy?” Larry looks concerned. I realise I am making a low kind of growling noise, like an animal in pain.
“Oh!” I say, gathering myself. “Nothing, darling. I have to give this machine lots of money, that’s all.”
I console myself with the thought that Christmas wasn’t quite the financial blow I’d feared. I picked up a bit of freelance work in December and Curly got some extra shifts at the adventure playground. We came out the other side with money left in our account, which is unprecedented. Admittedly, this was largely thanks to Mum, who is still bailing us out to the tune of hundreds of pounds a month, but it is beginning to feel less impossible that we’ll soon be back on our feet.
As we wait for the lift, I think back to this time last year. I remember the stomach-churning tension as I opened every bill; the feeling of being trapped in a cage of stress; the long weeks during which it seemed Curly and I might never agree on anything, ever again.
Things got better because I had a safety net when I really needed one. I know how lucky I am. The other day someone sent me an online petition about an east London hostel for single mothers which is to be closed and its inhabitants packed off to cheaper postcodes. When I think about what it must be like to contend with that, I feel a cold chill of fear and indignation. I resolve to add a second New Year’s resolution: in 2014, I will be suitably grateful for my good fortune at all times.
The lift door opens at floor two and I trundle the children to the car. There is a piece of plastic on the windscreen. Surely, it can’t be? It is: Penalty Charge Notice. £80. Happy sodding New Year.
Let’s face it, lesbians, we’ve peaked. We’ve had our 15 minutes of sweet, hashtag-spawning fame.
It’s a shame that the Lesbian doesn’t feature as one of the animals of the Chinese zodiac. Although 2013 was officially the Year of the Snake (the most phallic of creatures, ironically) it will perhaps come to be known, in less illustrious calendars, as the Year of the Lesbian.
Along with cauliflower recipes, twerking and tedious debates about whether or not a posh woman giving birth constituted news, lesbianism trended the bejeezus out of last year. Orange Is the New Black brought hot and hilarious dykes to small screens everywhere, Jodie Foster came out, Blue Is the Warmest Colour injected a nourishing dose of girl-on-girl sex into mainstream cinema, and Miley Cyrus spent the entire year in a lesbian costume. If you were a woman in 2013 and you weren’t rocking a permanent sense of outrage and an ironic early-1990s cagoule, you might as well have spent the year barricaded inside a toilet cubicle in Nando’s.
But, as with all trends, it would be pitifully optimistic to see last year’s obsession with all things Sapphic as anything but fleeting. Let’s face it, lesbians, we’ve peaked. We’ve had our 15 minutes of sweet, hashtag-spawning fame. Now it’s time for us to make our sorry way back to the realms of obscurity, where we’ll be greeted tenderly by an iPod and the Atkins diet. We’re this year’s handbag dogs, doomed to be abandoned; left shivering and begging for attention.
“What’s a lesbian, Mummy?” asks a child in 2017.
Mummy’s brow furrows. “Oh, that,” she says. “I think it had something to do with ladies in suit jackets and jeans. It was popular a few years ago.”
As we all know, sexuality isn’t only fluid but also able to move with the times. So where’s the hottest place on the Kinsey scale going to be in 2014? Bisexuality was big in 2008, and will probably take another couple of years to regenerate interest. My prediction for this year’s persuasion of choice? Asexuality.
Asexuals are going to be huge. A fuller and more inclusive version of LGBT, of course, is LGBTQIA, the last three letters standing for queer or questioning, intersex and asexual. That “QIA” is tagged on to the end of LGBT like an unexplored peninsula. And “asexual” is right on the very tip, like a carnally devoid Penzance.
Think about it. It was a year of sex overkill. By the end of 2013, the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles found that Brits are having 20 per cent less sex than we did in 2000. Then along come the asexuals, with their mystique, and their clandestine, shagless ways.
I can already see Taylor Swift revealing to the world, via a YouTube video, that she’s in an asexual relationship with a bag of salad.
If you haven’t been invited to an asexual wedding yet, you may well be going about 2014 the wrong way. No need to panic, though – you can always comfort yourself by having a big, unsexy night in with your ABF (asexual best friend). If you don’t have one of those, maybe you should start panicking.
In the meantime, I’m going to sit gazing into the middle distance, sipping soon-to-be-horribly-unfashionable herbal tea and waiting for this column to be replaced by A-OK: the musings of an asexual vegan poet.
Bournemouth was created as a constituency in 1918. The first MP was Henry Page Croft, founder of the imperialist Reveille movement and the National Party, which fought by-elections during the First World War and wanted “complete victory during the war and after the war”.
Croft was elected under this banner in 1918 but returned to the Tories. In 1923 and 1924, his Labour opponent was Minnie Pallister, author of The Orange Box. In the foreword, she admitted it was strange that the orange box was synonymous with open-air speaking as it was “inclined to be frail” and “weighty” speakers would need something “made of sterner stuff”.
A home needs a girlfriend, or a Clavinova.
How’s your year shaping up? Better than mine, I hope. Never mind the usual anxieties about work and money. Those are yawnsville. By the time you read this, I will have been left by my girlfriend. One does not normally have a schedule for this kind of thing, but in this case we do. She is not leaving me for another man (or woman; I’ve had that happen and it gives rise to a rather odd mixture of emotions); she’s leaving me for Sweden. For three years. I know I’ve mentioned this before, but forgive me: it’s been preying on my mind.
That we’re getting on as soppily well as we ever have doesn’t help. Had cracks started appearing, then we might have used this as a handy excuse to drift apart. Which would have been a shabby way of going about things, I know, but not without precedent. Then again, that precedent – of the long-distance relationship that is allowed to collapse under the weight of its own unsustainability – tends to arise when Person A goes off to university and Person B goes either to another university or no university at all; and Person A, or it may be Person B, or both, suddenly discover (for they do not exactly have a burden of experience in this area) that other people’s genitals are even more fascinating than they suspected they were going to be, and off they go on a journey of discovery that ends only with . . . well, the realisation that they’re not really interested in seeing any new genitals. (It is best if this realisation coincides exactly with marriage, but we do not live in an ideal world.)
So, the past week has been spent watching the Beloved pack stuff and occasionally helping her move it into a van driven by her sister (who has been clamouring for a mention in this column for some time). I remember when my flatmate Emmanuelle moved out: I didn’t lift a finger to help her, on the grounds that a) I didn’t want her to move out, b) I was not emotionally beholden to her and c) she had a boyfriend to help her anyway. This time, it’s different: I have to help, even if it pains me so much that I have to find an objective correlative to serve as a vessel for the pain I have decided to pick on the Clavinova. For those who do not know what this is, it is an electric piano manufactured by Yamaha whose keys faithfully reproduce the feel and momentum of a real piano’s. This particular instrument, a cast-off from the B’s sister, was one of the more rudimentary models, with a non-functioning sustain pedal, whose lack served only to make the bare threads of my pitiful technique all the more obvious.
But damn it all, I loved that Clavinova. I may know that the only full, recognised song I have in my repertoire is a faltering and hesitant version of “Let it Be” – which more often than not breaks down completely as you get to that bit where Billy Preston joins in on the Hammond organ just before the third verse – but on my own, and (whisper it softly) ever so slightly temulent, I have found much pleasure in bashing away at the keys in such a way that my confidence and ability have increased – enough to make me happy and for the Beloved to give me encouragement, as one would a small child.
And now it’s going back. “You can get them for a song on eBay,” says the sister nonchalantly; and, having checked, I know that I could get one for 99p as long as it doesn’t bother me that it doesn’t work, but I find the whole business of eBay alarming and with the potential for much distress. Also, the keyboard was in her boudoir, there’s no real room anywhere else for it, and now she’s going, someone else is going to have to be slotted into that room, and I doubt very much that this person is going to be thrilled at the idea of a pissed 50-year-old wandering in at midnight and bashing out what sound a little bit like the opening chords of Madness’s “It Must Be Love”.
Et in Arcadia ego: to have known such happiness, to have drunk deep of it, and to have it dashed from your lips . . . for I have come to learn that while a home needs (for example) a cat, it can just about get by without one, but a home without a piano, or acceptable substitute thereof, is rubbish. Almost as bad as a home without a girlfriend, really.
The worst winter storms to hit the UK for 20 years have been nothing if not comprehensive.
6 January 2014: Waves pound the sea wall by the lighthouse in Porthcawl, South Wales. Photo: Rex.
The day after the tidal surge subsided, on 6 December, I drove out to Jaywick, on the Essex coast. This plotland community was established near Clacton-on-Sea in the 1930s as a holiday resort for Londoners. It is now said to be the most deprived place in England. The sea is its most treasured amenity, but occasionally it becomes a threat – 37 people drowned in Jaywick on the night of 31 January 1953, when the North Sea broke though coastal defences along the east coast, and many of its residents were evacuated on 5 December 2013, when the highest “tidal surge” in 60 years was predicted.
I met a woman on the beach who told me that she had slept rough with her dog in Clacton-on-Sea because the shelter was full. Her son had stayed in Jaywick. Other people had walked back in the middle of the night. Two lads sharing an early-morning spliff on the seafront showed me how high the water had come.
Improved flood defences and warning systems ensured there was no repeat of the catastrophe of 1953: there was no loss of life on the east coast and less damage to property than had been feared. Yet not everywhere escaped unscathed: houses from Hull to Essex were flooded, and the Lincolnshire town of Boston found itself knee-deep in water when a tidal inlet called the Haven burst its banks. The chalk mark drawn on the back wall of St Botolph’s Church, or “the Stump”, as it is known, thanks to the tall tower that rises above the flat fenland landscape, suggests that the water was a metre higher than it had been in 1953.
Boston has always been oriented towards Europe, and beyond: it is the place from which religious dissidents first attempted to escape England for a new life of religious freedom, and today it claims a higher proportion of immigrants than any other town in the country. When I arrived several days after the flood and walked along Irby Street, which runs beside – and beneath – the Haven, there were cars with Czech number plates parked among the damp carpets and rotting furniture piled on the pavements. One woman told me she had been in Prague when the water flowed through her house, leaving an ankle-deep tidemark on the walls. The water took its habitually capricious course: it bypassed some houses entirely, but struck others with such force that it blew in their windows and threw cookers around as if they were made of polystyrene.
The residents of Boston had been told to expect an even higher tide on New Year’s Day, but when the storms resumed, they struck the other coast and travelled in the opposite direction, from Cornwall to Scotland: the worst winter storms to hit the UK, for 20 years have been nothing if not comprehensive.
Met Office statistics confirm the anecdotal evidence: it was the stormiest December in records dating back to 1969, and one of the windiest months in Britain since January 1993. In Scotland, it was the wettest month since records began in 1910. No one knows if the storms are caused by climate change or not: the Met Office will say only that it expects to see extreme weather events more frequently as the planet warms. More immediate causes have also been cited, from the “quasi-biennial oscillation”, a cycle of fast-moving winds above the Equator, to the effects of the US’s arctic freeze.
The political arguments over the causes of the storms have begun: the government says more than a million homes have been protected since the start of December, but critics say that spending on flood defences is being cut – in real terms it will fall from £646m in 2010-2011 to £546m in 2015-2016. The Prime Minister acknowledged the political significance of flooded homes when he visited the Kent town of Yalding on 27 December.
One of the residents of the Little Venice Country Park and Marina, which stands on the edge of town, told me that they were used to four or five feet of water, but they were not prepared for the ten-foot wave that swept through the park. “It was the scariest thing I have ever seen,” he said. When I visited Little Venice on 7 January, the Environment Agency was considering evacuating the park for a third time, while in Westminster, the debate about the national response to the storms was getting under way: Maria Eagle dismissed the Prime Minister’s visit to Yalding as a “stunt” but the residents of Little Venice were not inclined to join in the recriminations. They did not even blame the Environment Agency for opening the Leigh Barrier upstream and releasing the tidal wave that set their homes adrift. “It was a case of ‘had to’,” one said. “It’s the same all over the country: it’s just exceptional weather.”
“Mind Maps: Stories from Psychology” at the Science Museum is an exhibition which offers few rigid conclusions.
Shock treatment: a 19th-century apothecary experiments with electricity. Image: by Edmund Bristow (1824) courtesy of the Science Museum.
It looks more like an art installation than the remains of a 400-year-old experiment: a life-size image of a man rendered in dark, angry scrawls on a wooden panel. It is, in fact, a human nervous system, painstakingly removed from a corpse by Italian medical students and then varnished on to the dissecting table. Scientists in the 17th century believed that human beings were animated by the “animal spirit” that flowed from the brain down the nerves.
The display is part of the “Mind Maps” exhibition at the Science Museum in London, which explores how people have tried to gain a better understanding of their minds.
For such an ambitious project, the exhibition is unexpectedly compact: the material is organised around four brief periods, each one marking a significant shift in psychology. We start in 1790-1810, when a distinguished cast of historical figures was brought together through attempts to cure “nervous disorders”. There’s a glass harmonica, designed by the American founding father Benjamin Franklin, which was used in séances by Dr Franz Anton Mesmer, from whom we derive the verb “to mesmerise”. So impressed was Mozart by Mesmer’s instrument, he composed music for it. His eerie melodies induced convulsions in Mesmer’s patients.
Around the same time, medics were exploring the effect that electricity could have on the nerves. John Wesley, one of the founders of the Methodist Church, was an early proponent of the use of small electric shocks to cure ailments ranging from headaches to “insanity”. The Italian scientist Luigi Galvani was fascinated by this link and spent much of his life applying electric shocks to dead frogs to explore how their legs moved. In 1803 Galvani applied electricity to a human cadaver in London to reanimate its limbs – a gruesome experiment said to have inspired Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein.
Jump forward to the turn of the 20th century and nervous disorders were a common preoccupation, seen as a product of the stresses of modern life. What we now call depression was then “nerve weakness”, to be treated with amulets, poisonous nerve tonics or electric currents. It took a former nerve doctor, Sigmund Freud, to argue that mental illness might be the result of unresolved emotions.
By the 1930s modern technologies allowed scientists to probe deeper into the brain. We learned how to measure brainwaves; a discovery that ushered in one of the most troubling periods of mental health care. The 1930s marked the first use of some of our most invasive treatments for mental illness, including electroconvulsive therapy and lobotomies, carried out with little understanding of how or why they might work.
So how far have we come? “Mind Maps” wisely leaves this question unanswered. Advanced scanning techniques have allowed us an ever more detailed understanding of the brain’s physical structure but there’s also renewed interest in low-tech solutions. Treatments such as cognitive behavioural therapy demonstrate a new emphasis on empowering patients to take charge of their own recovery. Meanwhile, the “communicube” and the “communiwell” – stones, buttons and tokens placed on a structure resembling a cake stand, used to help people describe and position the voices they hear in their head – don’t look so very different from the amulets our forebears might have carried to ward off mental illness.
Perhaps that’s fitting, because, for all our scientific sophistication, elements of human consciousness still feel as remote and underexplored as the surface of Mars.
By promising fundamental changes to the economy, the Labour leader can carve out a new coalition which quietly puts to bed the old battle lines of the 1980s.
Goldman Sachs will kick off the controversial bonus season today when they announce their results. That is presumably one reason why Ed Miliband chose this week to launch his challenge to the government around banks. If it hadn’t been for the looming Miliband speech, there would be the usual hand-wringing about bonuses, the usual debate about equality – and the response about how much the City earns for UK plc. In short, the same old stuff. But thanks to the Labour leader's linking of the issues, there is at least an implication that bonuses need to be an issue for the middle classes.
This is uncharted territory because we have become so used to the idea that the middle classes benefit from the success of the City that we forget that bonuses tend to get recycled into property. which feed into house prices and rents, and slowly prices everyone else out. We haven’t seen how bonus culture – and the extreme salary packets of bankers – are the cuckoo in the nest which feeds into inflation for everyone else. And how they corrode what used to be known as middle class values, morally and economically. We don’t see how the values of financial services are driving out the traditional values of thrift and deferred gratification.
This is important politically because we are, in some ways, still stuck in the Thatcher era when it seemed to be obvious that the interests of the working classes and the middle classes were diametrically opposed. Since then, the economic underpinnings of working class life has been kicked away by global competition. But you only have to look at London to see that the middle classes seem to be on the same track – no middle management, and priced out of the neighbourhoods where they grew up, and their children likely to be priced out of the neighbourhoods they are living in now.
My own small three-bedroomed home in north Croydon is worth £500,000, which will effectively exclude my own children from the area – unless they go into financial services, of course (if I see any of the money, it will replace my non-existent pension and social care insurance).They will live in a landlord-dominated city, paying extortionate rents to the agents of the Far Eastern investors and speculators who chose to rent out their homes, rather than keeping them empty for tax reasons.
No proper pension provision, panic about schooling, their jobs disappearing and their salaries corroding, the middle is being squeezed. If these trends continue – and there seems to be no reason why they shouldn’t – there will be no middle class in a generation, just a tiny elite and a vast, dependent proletariat, which is what the Miliband intervention implied but did not spell out.
It is, of course, partly their own fault. The middle classes misunderstood the emerging financial services sector, assuming it was on their side , when, as it turned out, it wasn’t (as the Lloyd’s Scandal showed in the early 1990s, the failure to learn the lessons of which led to the 2008 banking crisis). They cheered rising house prices without realising they would eventually throttle their children.
So this is also a dangerous moment politically because the beleaguered middle classes are beginning to wake up to the fact that they are heading in the same direction as the working class – precarious, dependent and timed when they go to the toilet at work. They feel excluded by the mainstream parties, which claim to support them but actually don’t, and are flirting with what Jean Marie le Pen used to call the "anti-technocratic" right.
This is an opportunity for Miliband to broaden his own appeal, if that is the main objective, but there is also a much broader opportunity, if he has the nerve. It is to redraw the political battle lines and carve out a new coalition which quietly puts to bed the old battle lines of the 1980s, and begins to work for the beleaguered majority. But that is going to require bold change, and some consensus across the political divide, and will need something much more fundamental than more childcare, a few more banks and raising school standards.
David Boyle is the author of Broke: How to Survive the Middle Class Crisis (Fourth Estate, published 16 Jan)
A poll reveals that Francois Hollande's popularity among French women has increased following news of his alleged affair with an actress.
I had never imagined that France’s president, Francois Hollande, held much appeal for women. Several opinion polls have confirmed that he is France’s most unpopular president ever. I’d place him closer to Gerard Depardieu than Olivier Martinez on my personal sexy French man scale. And now it looks like he’s a cheat. The magazine Closer has alleged that Hollande has been conducting an affair with the actress, Julie Gayet. France’s first lady, Valerie Trierweiler has spent several days in hospital, with her aides reporting that she is suffering from “shock” at the news.
So how has this revelation about Hollande’s private life affected his dire personal ratings? Most peculiarly, the Evening Standardhas reported that Hollande’s approval rating among women has jumped, from 23 to 26 per cent following the news. Women aged 25-34 and 50-64 were most likely have changed their opinion of him for the better.
At the same time, Hollande’s approval rating among men went down, from 31 per cent to just 28 – which means that overall, the French president’s popularity remains unchanged. The findings are based on a survey of 1,108 adults by LH2.
So how we interpret these figures? As another blow for the sisterhood, or more evidence that women always go for the bad guys?
Ed Miliband’s secret list, the moneybags ex-PM Blair and the mysterious case of the absentee Tories.
I gather from a well-placed snout that there’s a secret list in Ed Miliband’s office. The document is a roll-call of up to 30 Labour MPs expected to surrender their seat before the next election. Some are former cabinet ministers who acknowledge they will never be handed another red box, others ageing backbenchers who fancy putting on their slippers. The great exit could be good news for a couple of Milibandites: the party apparatchiks Torsten Henricson-Bell and Greg Beales are rumoured to fancy a move on to the green benches. Miliband may find himself busy as the general election approaches, quietly promising peerages and handing out parachutes.
A Tory backbenchermuttered that his retreating commander is hastily redrawing battle lines. Mixed polls and the rise of Ukip suggest we’re more likely to see David Cameron running a Fabergé egg-and-silver-spoon race in the Downing Street garden than leading the Tories to outright victory in May 2015. The 40:40 strategy, whereby the Tories selected 40 targets and 40 seats to defend, is, scowled my Tory informant, now 40:49. The nine constituencies joined to Cameron’s Maginot Line include Loughborough. Number 52 on Labour’s hit list, the Treasury junior bean-counter Nicky Morgan is considered vulnerable despite a majority of 3,744. She’s disappeared without trace inside George Osborne’s austerity machine.
Labour MPswere informed at a presentation that the result of the election will be decided by voters who watch not the news, but The X Factor. So Labour strategists must be salivating over the Tory MP Penny Mordaunt slipping into her swimming costume to make a Splash! on the box. A Labour wag proposed that the party seek political parity on the telly, demanding equal access to reality shows. It might be best to avoid Jack “Pikey” Dromey on Big Fat Gypsy Weddings or Denis MacShane on Benefits Street.
Not one, but three Tory MPs were absent when called by the Speaker, John Bercow, to put questions on the order paper to the Lib Dumb Deputy PM, Nick Clegg, and the Con Cabinet Office minister Greg Clark. Thrice went up the cry “Not here” when the names of Chris Kelly, Paul Uppal and Peter Aldous were called by the chair. The invisible threesome all have marginal seats. The Commons chamber will empty as the election looms and MPs fight hard for jobs. Their own jobs.
Nobody did betterout of New Labour than Tony Blair, who’s worth up to £40m and is the owner of seven properties. How the moneybags ex-PM amassed such a fortune is ow attracting attention. The investigative Rottweiler Tom Bower is researching a book on Blair’s loot, as are the news hounds Francis Beckett and David Hencke. Kazakhstan should be interesting.
Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror
Chris Christie's presidential hopes have taken a hit, thanks to the "bridge" scandal. But if he learns the lesson that the American public has little tolerance for proto-Nixonion political thuggery, and – crucially – stops hiring people who operate that way, then Christie could still be a viable candidate in 2016.
On Monday, Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, delivered his annual "State of the State" speech. It should have been the day when he set out his stall, clarified and amplified his policy positions on the national stage, and positioned himself as the frontrunner for the Republican nomination in 2016 after his robust re-election as Governor at the end of last year – but the speech was delivered under the shadow of a scandal.
Let's first evaluate Christie's position. He's been talked about as the Republican party's great hope, a conservative beloved by moderates, a straight-talking, straight-shooting vote-winner who could take the fight to the Democrats; a New Conservative. In November last year, despite New Jersey's strong Democrat leanings, he won re-election by twenty-two percentage points.
That deserves a closer look. New Jersey voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama in 2012 and '08. They voted for Kerry in '04, and Al Gore in 2000, and Clinton in '96 and '92. You have to go back to 1988 before they last voted for a Republican presidential candidate. The two governors who preceded Christie were Democrats with comfortable majorities.
But despite that, Christie – who is a staunch conservative on all sorts of issues in ways that liberal East Coasters find distasteful, especially abortions and gay marriage – has a bigger majority in New Jersey than his party has in Texas or Arizona. It's nearly as big as those of Mike Beebe in Arkansas, the first state to actually put a policy of forcing illegal immigrants to self-deport, or Bobby Jindal in Louisiana. A Republican in a Democrat state, he has a bigger majority than the governor of Mississippi, for chrissakes. No wonder he's been talked about as a potential Presidential frontrunner.
But then there was the bridge.
The top of Manhattan is connected to New Jersey via the world's busiest road-bridge, the George Washington bridge. On the New Jersey side of the bridge is a small town called Fort Lee; once the movie capital of America in the days before Hollywood, it's now just a small town distinguished mainly for sitting astride the gateway to Manhattan.
Here is what we know. From the 9 - 13 September last year the three toll-lanes that connect Fort Lee with the bridge were reduced to a single lane, ostensibly for a "traffic study". This caused absolute gridlock, until they were reopened by executive order by Port Authority director David Foye.
The Port Authority spans both New Jersey and New York spheres of influence. Foye, who reopened the lanes, was an appointee of Democrat governor of New York Andrew Cuomo, while the lanes appear to have been ordered closed by a Chris Christie appointee, David Wildstein. It is alleged that this was in response to the mayor of Fort Lee's refusal to endorse Christie in his campaign for re-election.
And then there was Bridget Kelly. After the lanes re-opened there was an investigation, which dredged up an email from Kelly, who was Christie's deputy chief of staff, to Wildstein, which ignited the scandal. “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” it said.
Other emails between officials mocked the mayor of Fort Lee's pleas to re-open the lanes, and imply that the closures are connected to the election battle between Christie and Democrat Barbara Buono. “I feel badly about the kids,” says an official whose name has not been released. “They are the children of Buono voters,” replies Wilder.
The question a lot of people are asking is this: was Fort Lee a rogue act by a couple of Christie's staff, as he has subsequently claimed? Or did the boss have a hand in it?
Actually, this doesn't matter all that much. Much more problematic for Christie, if he's paying attention, has been the lacklustre national response. A poll this week by the Pew Research Centre showed that the issue seems to have sunk without trace. Only 18 per cent of people surveyed said they were paying attention to Christie's apology and firing of Bridget Kelly (Christie didn't mince words with his former deputy chief of staff, calling her “stupid” and “deceitful;” he'd better hope she doesn't have any dirt to dish when he's on the national campaign-trail). On top of that, 60 per cent of respondents to Pew said their opinion of the governor had not changed since the scandal broke.
That sounds good for the guv'nor, right? Wrong. This is counter-intuitive, so bear with me here. Christie is already known as a bit of a political bruiser, so even if he didn't sanction the Fort Lee lane closures – which is entirely plausible – the fact that he is hiring the sort of people who will strike out, mafia-style, at mayors just for failing to endorse their boss, or to inconvenience people who they thought were voting for a Democrat candidate, shows a lack of political judgement. To risk a scandal of this magnitude over a mere endorsement by the mayor of a small town, especially when the race wasn't even remotely close to start with, is an act of appalling stupidity, even insanity, by his staff.
Therefore, the fact that people are dismissing this as just how Christie and New Jersey politics works – above all, not a surprise – is a very bad sign indeed for Chris Christie the aspiring candidate. It means that the scandal is feeding into a wider and already extant narrative: that Christie is a political bruiser., and worse: a bully.
“The last week,” Christie said in his State of the State, “has certainly tested this administration.” He's dead right. This particular scandal may have come out early enough, and probably been dealt with swiftly enough not to sink his hopes for the White House. Two years is a very long time in American politics. But it will certainly be a serious albatross around his neck when election season begins in earnest, and the image of arrogant Christie staff lashing out at those smaller and weaker than him is a compelling one.
If he learns the lesson that the American public has little tolerance for proto-Nixonion political thuggery, and – crucially – stops hiring people who operate that way, then Christie could still be a viable candidate in 2016. He's an immensely likeable public figure whose popularity with moderates shouldn't be underestimated, even if that will cause him problems with the hard-liners in the primary campaign, where he will likely be seriously outflanked on the right.
Really, more than anything, what the bridge scandal has shown is that the governor's got a lot of work to do before he's ready for prime-time. If he is going to face serious candidates like Paul Ryan or Marco Rubio in the primaries – not to mention, should he win the nomination, a heavyweight like Hilary Clinton or Joe Biden in the general election – he needs to shake off the stench of New Jersey politics and get rid of any staff that can't do the same, because, as they might say on the Jersey side of the George Washington bridge, this shit just ain't gonna cut it no more.