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    Both of these remarkable novels are rooted in 19th-century realism, but they are profoundly subversive of its conventions.

    The Foundling Boy Translated by Julian Evans
    Michel Déon
    Translated by Julian Evans
    Gallic Books, 416pp, £9.99

     The Erl-King
    Michel Tournier
    Translated by Barbara Bray
    Atlantic Books, 336pp, £12.99

    The foundling and the child-devouring ogre are among the most haunting of narrative archetypes. By an elegant coincidence, novels on these themes by two of the greatest living French novelists, Michels Déon and Tournier, have recently been published in English translation.

    Michel Déon, who was born in Paris in 1919 and now lives in Ireland, translated the works of Saul Bellow and William Faulkner and was elected to the French Academy in 1978. He has written more than 40 books, including Un Taxi mauve (1973), which was made into a film starring Charlotte Rampling and Fred Astaire. The Foundling Boy, first published in 1975 as Le Jeune Homme vert, is the second of his novels to be translated into English.

    On a summer’s night in 1919, Jeanne Arnaud dreams that she hears a baby crying. Waking, she finds on her doorstep a basket containing an infant. With him is a note: “I was born on 16 August. I don’t have a name. You can find one for me if you want me to stay with you.”

    Jeanne and her husband, Albert, a one-legged veteran of Verdun, are the caretakers of La Sauzveté, a chateau in Normandy owned by the du Courseau family. Jeanne was nursemaid to the eldest of the du Courseau children, 19-year-old Geneviève, but she has no children of her own and is determined to keep the foundling.

    Despite strong opposition from Madame du Courseau, who wants to raise the child as a companion to her two younger children – four-year-old Antoinette and two-year-old Michel – Jeanne prevails. The baby is named Jean Arnaud and grows up an object of affectionate interest to the du Courseaus, with the exception of Michel, who loathes him.

    Secrets and suppressed emotion char­acterise the lives of the du Courseau family. Whatever love there was between Antoine du Courseau and his wife, Marie-Thérèse, has long since cooled. She occupies herself with good works, to the chagrin of the local priest, the abbé Le Couec, a saintly but rackety Breton with a taste for Calvados. Antoine, meanwhile, reserves his passion for a succession of beautiful Bugattis, in which he makes long trips south, osten­sibly to visit Geneviève, who is recuperating from a mysterious malady in Menton.

    Surrounded by warmth and approval, adored by Antoinette, whose affection for him soon takes a more than sisterly form, and adoring in his turn Chantal de Male­mort, the virginal daughter of a neighbouring grand family, Jean grows up intrigued rather than agonised by the mystery of his origins. Yet his sense that he doesn’t belong in provincial Normandy is piqued when, on a rainy afternoon, he chances upon a broken-down Hispano-Suiza, driven by a black chauffeur and containing a foreign prince bundled up in furs. It is a fleeting encounter but it changes the course of Jean’s life.

    He has always wanted to travel, and he sets off for London to visit Geneviève, now married to the owner of the Hispano-Suiza. The chauffeur, Salah, is deputed to show him around and proves an adroit guide to the city’s loucher haunts.

    Strange twists of fate also mark the destiny of Abel Tiffauges, the ogreish protagonist of Michel Tournier’s The Erl-King. Tournier, like Déon, was born in Paris, in 1924. He, too, worked as a translator (of German lit­erature in his case) and was awarded the French Academy’s Grand Prix du roman, for his novel Vendredi (1967). The Erl-King (1970) was made into a film by Volker Schlöndorff, starring John Malkovich.

    Tournier’s novel, reissued in an exquisite 1972 translation by the late Barbara Bray, is a terrifying vision of the internal life of a perp­etual outsider. Abel Tiffauges was born in 1908 and begins his “sinister writings” – a journal composed with his left hand after his right hand is injured in an accident – 30 years later, in the shadow of a war in which he is to become deeply embroiled.

    “My name is Abel Tiffauges, I run a gar­age in the Place de la Porte-des-Ternes, and I’m not crazy,” he writes. It is his dreadful sanity that makes his story so mesmerising. From his wretched childhood – when he is bullied at boarding school until he finds a protector and alter ego in a fellow pupil, Nestor – to his solitary adulthood, his passion for photography and his obsessive identification with the innocence and pur­ity of children, Abel is both self-identified monster and everyman. The stages in his progression from tormented child to de facto director of a fortress school for Nazi boys fall like hammer blows of fate: unsought, inevitable, appalling.

    Both of these remarkable novels are rooted in 19th-century realism but profoundly subversive of its conventions. Déon’s third-person narrator continually breaks the narr­ative meniscus to address his audience, while Tournier’s readers, already tor­mented by the plangent humanity of Tiffauges, have their queasy equilibrium further disturbed by Tournier’s inveterate habit of “bricolage”, or borrowing from himself and other authors (there is an entire scene lifted from Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes).

    While Déon’s coming-of-age novel, with its charm sharpened by its affectionate satire of the mores of provincial life between the wars, deserves a place alongside Flaubert’s Sentimental Education and Le Grand Meaulnes, Tournier’s The Erl-King inhabits a different realm: it belongs among those rare works of art that allow us to contemplate dir­ectly the darkest secrets of our humanity.

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    Francisco Bethencourt’s book Racisms explores the blood on the leaves left behind by centuries of racial discrimination, including the enduring spectre of Guantánamo Bay.

    Racisms: From the Crusades to the 20th Century 
    Francisco Bethencourt
    Princeton University Press, 444pp, £27.95

    It must have been some time in the 1990s when I first heard a Haitian band protesting about having been incarcerated in the US detention centre at Guantánamo Bay. Translated from Haitian Creole into English, the song went something like this:

    We sold our pigs, we sold our goats
    To go to Miami;
    Where we landed, we were returned [to Haiti].
    We sold our pigs, we sold our goats;
    At Guantánamo they sent us back . . .
    Guantánamo is no good, Oh.

    Haitian asylum-seekers are the forgotten victims of the racism that thrives at Guantánamo. Between 1991 and 1995, tens of thousands of Haitians fled their country in kanntès, or rickety boats, after the military overthrew the democratically elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. They were intercepted at sea by the US Coast Guard and taken to Guantánamo, where they awaited “processing” to discover if they truly faced persecution in their home country. Some remained there for years and most were sent back to Haiti. Conditions in the camp were appalling; the inmates were fenced in with razor barbed wire and heavily guarded, and hysterical fears about “contaminated blood” were used to justify testing everyone for the HIV virus. At the peak of operations in those years, the Guantánamo base held over 45,000 Haitians. Aristide condemned the US policy as racist.

    The last incarcerated Haitian left Guantá­namo in 1995. Seven years later, their place was taken by other highly racialised detainees – those captured in the “war on terror”. The links between Haitian refugees and these allegedly unlawful combatants are closer than one might imagine. As early as 1933, John Houston Craige (the then director of public relations for the marines, who were stationed in Haiti during the US occu­pation of the territory between 1915 and 1934) designated Haiti a “Black Bagdad” (sic). In Port-au-Prince a gunrunner tells Craige:

    This is black Bagdad. These people are still living in the days of the Arabian Nights . . . You may hear tales as amazing as a Scheherezade ever told. You may see woolly-headed cannibals and silk-hatted savants side by side.

    Rampant racism against Haitians, Arabs and Muslims has created an image of Guantánamo as an imperial outpost for slaves, refugees, revolutionaries and terrorists.

    To understand what fuelled such racist ideologies and practices, I can think of no better book than Francisco Bethencourt’s Racisms. It is an ambitious, bold project: Bethencourt seeks to chart the history of racial bias in the western world from the Crusades to the 20th century. He is critical of studies that extrapolate from a limited number of case studies or from individual nations; he dismisses abstract theorising; he revels in the particular, the concrete and the verifiable. The result is a complex yet confident account of one of the most important concepts in history: racism. Or, as he insists, racisms-in-the-plural – that is, in all their varied and complex forms.

    Crucial to his perspective is his definition of racism. This sounds simple, but in order to encompass such a long time frame and geographical sweep he needs to define the phenomenon broadly enough to include its many permutations, yet precisely enough to ensure that his comparisons are valid. For Bethencourt, racism is any “prejudice concerning ethnic descent coupled with discriminatory action”. In other words, it is concerned with both classification systems and everyday practices. As such, it is fundamentally a political project, concerned as much with “culture” as with “blood”.

    There is nothing radical about the way Bethencourt has structured his book: he starts with the Crusades and ends in the 20th century. The advantages of this approach are immediately obvious, however; it enables him to plot the subtle shifts over time and geographical space in the meaning, significance and impact of racist ideologies. In the Middle Ages, he argues, racist practices were driven primarily by war, political competition (of the Germans against the Slavs or the English against the Irish, for instance), religious hatred (Christians v Jews and Muslims, or Latin Christians v Greek Christians) and ideas about the purity of blood (prominent in Iberia).

    Bethencourt then turns to oceanic and colonial explorations and invasions where hierarchies of peoples and places were drawn up and classification systems proliferated. He shows how, in the medieval and early-modern periods, Christians became worried about ethnic purity. Might Jews be contaminating water or food? What could be done to prevent such a calamity? Not only Jews; what about other heretics? The Catholic kings decreed that the children and grandchildren of those convicted during the Inquisition should be barred from holding high office. Hostility against Roma peoples, who were initially welcomed when they arrived in Europe in the Middle Ages, also developed; they were expelled for being carriers of diseases such as the plague and accused of kidnapping children.

    “Blood”, skin colour and physical appearance were not the only relevant “signs” that attracted racist attention. Even seemingly minor factors such as hairstyle and clothing could be important. In 1692, a major riot in Mexico City was blamed on tensions between Native American and mixed-race residents. Priests complained that the indigenous women were wearing Spanish skirts instead of the traditional huipil dress. Native men who wore overcoats were accused of acting in a haughty way, an attitude made worse when they spoke Spanish.

    Bethencourt believes that the American colonial experience had a decisive impact on the development of a different kind of racism. He notes that slavery increasingly came to be identified with blackness. In every colonial encounter, mixed marriages generated revisions of the social taxonomy. In many parts of the world, complex vocabularies were invented. European commentators in the 16th and 17th centuries used animal metaphors, such as “mulatto” (meaning “mule”), to denigrate interethnic children and to suggest that such children would be incapable of reproducing.

    Before concluding with the history of nationalism and the horrors of the Holocaust, Bethencourt addresses the “scientific” turn in racial classification systems. There is a vast literaure on the ideas of influential men such as Carl Linnaeus, Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon, Immanuel Kant, Robert Knox, Charles Darwin and many others. However, Bethencourt’s summary is the clearest and most sophisticated to date.

    These final chapters are also some of the most important in the book, given the recent rise of xenophobic parties such as Chrysi Avgi (Golden Dawn) in Greece and the Freedom Party in Austria, the disturbing record of law courts in the US – which resulted in the acquittal last year of Trayvon Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman – concerns in South Africa following the death of Nelson Mandela about what is called “quiet racism” and debates here in the UK about Romanian and Bulgarian immigration. Bethencourt is dismissive of arguments that racism is primarily an issue of pseudo-science. Reading racism through the lens of the Holocaust is deeply problematic: cultural stereotypes were always central to the numerous forms of prejudice, and ideas about ethnic difference did not always result in racism. For that to happen, there needs to be concerted political action, often by the ruling elite but sometimes also emerging from the underclasses who feel abandoned by the elite and seek to apportion blame.

    As political projects, racisms have always been contested. This was nowhere more evident than in the French colony of Saint-Domingue when, in 1791, the slaves revolted, destroying 2,000 plantations and killing a thousand masters. On 1 January 1804, Jean-Jacques Dessalines proclaimed the independence of the colony, renaming it Haiti. It was the first black republic. As Bethencourt stresses throughout this impressive book, victims of racist practices “contributed to their own liberation” through resistance, protest, reasoning and shaming practices and by developing alternative discourses. Ironically, the slaves of Saint-Domingue had fought their French masters with the songs and slogans of the French Revolution on their lips. In the words of Frederick Douglass, the American former slave and reformer who – like his contemporary Solomon Northup, the narrator of 12 Years of Slave  – was deeply involved in the abolitionist struggle:

    Until Haiti struck for freedom, the conscience of the Christian world slept profoundly over slavery . . . The Negro was in its estimation a sheep-like creature, having no rights which white men were bound to respect, a docile animal, a kind of ass, capable of bearing burdens and receiving stripes from a white master without resentment, and without resistance.

    Haitian slaves set out to “dispel this degradation and dangerous delusion” and to teach the world “the value of liberty”. Bethencourt shows how people throughout history have attempted to dispel similar racisms. We can continue to do so today.

    Joanna Bourke is professor of history at Birkbeck, University of London and the author of “What It Means To Be Human” (Virago, £10.99)

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    The new regulation would allow Jeremy Hunt to close any hospital or department in Britain and rob the public of their right to protest.

    Rules are pesky things when you’re trying to get things done. Especially when it comes to health care and you’re making such big changes that they can be “seen from space”. But for Jeremy Hunt et al, they’re more of a bore, not real obstacles. If the rule book tells them they can’t do exactly what they like, it’s very simple: they just rewrite it. It’s a luxury of the rich and powerful when irritations like Lewisham happen. The public claimed a victory, Hunt feigned defeat. But it was only a simpering type of defeat; he knew he’d be back. 

    Hunt’s costly setback at Lewisham – costly for the taxpayer of course – said a lot about the government’s plans for the NHS in general. The way he has responded since, contriving to stack the law in his favour, says even more. It speaks volumes for the sheer determination he and the rest of the cabinet have in seeing their plans through, and the powerful means they have to back it up.

    Means like Clause 118 of the Care Bill. Or as it’s known in some circles, the "Hospital Closure Clause". Another obscurity in the legislative blur, its purpose is nonetheless stark. If it is nodded through in the next few weeks, another checkpoint on the road to private health in the UK will be passed.

    In short, Clause 118 will allow Jeremy Hunt and any future health secretary to close any hospital or department in England with very little trouble at all. No consent from the clinical commissioning group (CCG) which runs it (despite the new "autonomy" they’ve been granted), no sound financial basis for the decision, nor true democratic approval required. Only a tedious consultation process with the local yokels to sit through and you’re done.

    It might be wilfully obscure but Dr David Wrigley, GP, BMA GP Committee member and anti-privatisation campaigner, is in no doubt about Clause 118’s menacing potential. He says: "It means no hospital in England is safe. It allows the closure of hospitals if it suits the higher powers and the main reasons may well be financial when it should be a clinically based decision. It’s effectively a hospital closure clause; it’s an affront to democracy." Wrigley has set up an online petition to fight Clause 118 and is urging the public to contact their MP in protest against it.

    Why does all this matter? Well, it doesn’t. Not if you can afford your own healthcare. But for the rest of us who don’t have such luxuries, it means a hell of a lot. With hospital budgets under pressure and departments in crisis, private companies lurk in the shadows waiting to take over services under the NHS banner, like wolves in sheep’s clothing. Every time a nationalised service is closed, vital care will be pushed physically and financially further away from us.

    With the rule book rewritten, this time leaving no room for little hiccups like Lewisham, the public will be cut out of the democratic process and robbed of their rights to protest closures. But perhaps the most nauseating part of it all is the double-standards. David Cameron gave a solemn promise that there would be no more "tiresome, meddlesome, top-down re-structures". Jeremy Hunt has said time and time again that CCGs should hold their own keys, that primary care should be delivered "in exactly the way CCGs want in their area", that by empowering and consulting with local clinicians and handing over responsibility for commissioning to the doctors on the ground, the NHS would be liberated.

    For many, Clause 118 is proof, were it needed, that this was nothing but lip service. Unite’s head of health Rachael Maskell says: "This is going flat in the face of Jeremy Hunt’s previous rhetoric, and very much pushing along the line of centralist diktat about local services. It doesn’t bring in the CCGs at all; it doesn’t involve patients or staff."

    Countless doctors, nurses, surgeons, managers, unions, patients, politicians, economists and dozens of campaign groups are pleading with the government to rethink the way it is "reforming" the NHS. Yet it presses ahead Thatcher-like, wilfully ignorant, skipping around every tiresome obstacle, using new tools like Clause 118 to take more power and control away from the people who have paid for the NHS and who need it the most.

    For a party which received only 36.1 per cent of the vote in 2010 and is now squirming away in an uncomfortable coalition, ignoring the wishes of the medical profession, its own CCGs and the general public to bring in more centralised control and a privatised system that the majority of the public opposes, might just seem like arrogance.

    But the history books, like the rule books, are written by the winners. With Clause 118 due to be sealed in the next few weeks the government might well be justified in a little swagger, knowing the book is nearly closed on the NHS once and for all.

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    Handel did not praise his own works but there was one that he loved, Messiah, because in it he had redeemed himself.

    Consuming passions: Handel’s appetite was as great as his talent, as depicted in Joseph Goupy’s etching The Charming Brute. Image: Bridgeman Art Library.

    Stefan Zweig (1881-1942) was a prolific writer of fiction, journalism, biographies and plays. Born in Vienna to non-religious Jewish parents, he was a friend of Sigmund Freud, Richard Strauss and Theodor Herzl, among others. During the First World War, he became a pro-European pacifist; with the rise of Hitler, he fled first to England, then to New York and finally to Brazil, where he committed suicide with his wife in despair at world events. Zweig was fascinated by music and he provided the libretto for Strauss’s “Die Schweigsame Frau”, which, because Zweig was Jewish, was banned after four performances. Zweig also published a collection of “historical miniatures” about moments of genius and heroism, including this account of Handel’s composition of “Messiah”, printed here in a new translation – the first in over 70 years – by Anthea Bell.

    On the afternoon of 13 April 1737, George Frideric Handel’s manservant was sitting at the ground-floor window of the house in Brook Street, very strangely occupied. He had found, to his annoyance, that his supply of tobacco had run out but he dared not leave the house. Handel had come home from rehearsal in a rage, his face bright red, the veins standing out like thick cords at his temples. He was now marching up and down on the first floor so vigorously that the ceiling was shaking: it was unwise to be negligent in his service on days when he was in such a fury. So the servant was seeking diversion from his boredom by puffing not elegant rings of blue smoke from his short clay pipe, but soap bubbles. He was amusing himself by blowing the brightly coloured bubbles out of the window and into the street.

    Passers-by stopped, bursting a bubble here and there with their canes in jest as they laughed and waved, but they showed no surprise. For anything might be expected of this house: the harpsichord might suddenly play loud music by night; you might hear prima donnas sobbing as the choleric German, falling into a berserk rage, uttered threats against them for singing an eighth of a tone too high or too low. The neighbours in Grosvenor Square had long considered 25 Brook Street a madhouse.

    The servant blew his bright bubbles silently and persistently. Then he suddenly gave a start of alarm as a dull thud made the whole house shake. The manservant jumped up and raced upstairs. He saw Handel lying motionless on the floor, eyes open and staring. The strong man was lying on his back groaning, or rather the groans were forcing their way out of him in short and increasingly weak grunts.

    Now up from the floor below came Johann Christoph Schmidt, the master’s secretary and assistant. The two of them raised the weight of the man – his arms dangling limp, like those of a corpse – and laid him on the sofa. “Undress him,” Schmidt ordered the servant. “I’ll run for the doctor.”

    Schmidt ran out without his coat, waving to all the coaches that trotted sedately by. At last, one of them stopped. Lord Chandos’s coachman had recognised Schmidt. “Handel is dying!” he cried out to the duke, whom he knew to be his beloved master’s best patron. The duke immediately told him to get into the coach, the horses were given a sharp crack of the whip, and they went to fetch Dr Jenkins from a room in Fleet Street where he was earnestly studying a urine sample. “It’s all the trouble he’s had that’s to blame,” lamented the secretary despondently. “They’ve plagued him to death, those damned singers and castrati, the scribblers and the carping critics, the whole wretched crew.”

    In the house, the servant held the basin, Schmidt lifted Handel’s arm and the doctor cut into the vein. A jet of blood spurted up, hot, bright red blood, and the next moment a sigh of relief issued from the compressed lips. Handel took a deep breath and opened his eyes. They were still weary, faraway and unaware. The light in them was extinguished. Dr Jenkins bent lower. He saw that one eye, the right eye, was staring while the other looked livelier. He raised Handel’s right arm. It fell back as if dead. Then he raised the left arm. The left re­mained in its new position. Now Dr Jenkins knew enough.

    When he had left the room Schmidt followed him to the stairs. “What is it?”

    “Apoplexy. His right side is paralysed.”

    “And will he – will he at least be able to work again? He can’t live without com­posing.”

    Dr Jenkins was already on the stairs.

    “No, he will never work again,” he said very quietly. “We may be able to save the man, but we have lost the musician.”

    Schmidt stared at him with such despair in his eyes that the doctor felt stricken.

    For four months Handel lived devoid of strength. The right half of his body remained dead. He could not walk, he could not write, he could not play a single note on the keyboard. He could not speak. When friends made music for him a little light came into his eyes and then his unwieldy body moved like that of a sick man in a dream. Finally the doctor, in desperation – for the maestro was obviously incurable – advised sending him to the hot baths at Aachen.

    But under the frozen envelope there lived an incalculable strength. The huge man had not given up and, against the laws of nature, his will worked a miracle. The doctors at Aachen warned him not to stay in the hot baths for more than three hours at a time;  his heart would not survive any longer period, they said, and it could kill him. But his will defied death for the sake of life. To the horror of his doctors, Handel spent nine hours a day in the baths and with his will his strength grew. After a week he could drag himself around again; after a second week he could move his arm and he tore himself free from the paralysing toils of death.

    On the last day before he was to leave Aachen, fully in control of his body, Handel stopped outside  the church. He had never been particularly devout, but now, as he climbed to the organ loft, he felt moved by something ineffable.

    He touched the keys with his left hand. The notes sounded, ringing clear and pure. Now he tentatively tried the right hand that had been closed so long. And behold, the silver spring of sound leaped out. Slowly, he began to play, to improvise, and the great torrent of sound carried him away with it. Down below, anonymous, the nuns and worshippers listened. They had never heard a mortal man play like that before. Handel, his head humbly bent, played on and on. He had recovered the language in which he spoke to God, to eternity, to mankind.

    “I have come back from Hades,” said George Frideric Handel proudly. The battle lust of old had returned to the 53-year-old musician. We find him now writing an opera, a second opera, a third, the great oratorios Saul and Israel in Egypt; he writes L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato; his creative desires well up as if from a long-dammed spring. But the times are against him. The queen’s death halts theatrical performances, then the Spanish war begins, the theatre remains empty and debts mount up. Such cold falls over London that the Thames freezes over. Next the singers fall ill.

    Handel’s financial difficulties grow worse and worse. His creditors are dunning him, the critics are scathing, the public remains silent and indifferent, and gradually the struggling composer loses heart. A benefit performance has just saved him from im­prisonment for debt, but what a disgrace, to buy back his life as a beggar! Handel becomes more and more reclusive, his mind grows ever darker. In the year 1740 he feels a beaten, defeated man once more. His former fame is dust and ashes. Why, he sighs, did God let me rise from my sickbed if men are to bury me once more? A lost man, weary of himself, Handel wanders London by night. Sometimes he stops outside a church, sometimes he sits in a tavern, and sometimes he stares down from a bridge over the Thames and wonders whether it might not be better to cast off all his cares by making one determined leap.

    One night he had been wandering in this way again. It was 21 August 1741 and the day had been warm and sultry. No one was still awake in the house in Brook Street. He used to come home from every walk with a melody, but now his desk was empty. There was nothing to begin, nothing to finish. Or no: not bare! There was a package and he quickly broke the seal. A letter lay on top from the poet Charles Jennens, who wrote to say that he was sending Handel  a new poem and he hoped the great genius of music, phoenix musicae, would look graciously on his poor words and carry them up on his wings through the ether of immortality. Handel started as if something terrible had touched him. Did this man mean  to mock him? He tore the letter in two. “The blackguard! The scoundrel!” he bellowed. Tears broke from his eyes and his body trembled with impotent rage. The disturbed, ruined man lay heavily on his bed.

    But he could not sleep. Handel rose, went back into his study and once again lit the candle. Messiah, read the first page. He turned over the title leaf and began to read. At the first words he started up. “Comfort ye,” began the libretto. It was like magic, that phrase – no, not a phrase, it was an answer divinely given, the cry of an angel calling from the overcast skies to his heart. Handel heard the phrase as music, as hovering, calling, rushing, singing notes.

    His hands shook as he turned page after page. Yes, he had been called, summoned. Every word entered into him with irresist­ible force. All his weariness was gone. Never before had he felt his powers so strongly, never before known the joy of creation streaming through him like this. Again and again the words poured over him like warm, redeeming light. And suddenly he shivered, for there, in the hand of poor Jennens, he read: “The Lord gave the word.”

    He held his breath. Here was the truth: the Lord had given him the word; and behold, there the word was written, there it rang out, a word that could be repeated and transformed for ever: “Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!”

    Tears blurred Handel’s eyes, so mighty was the fervour in him. Hastily, he picked up his pen and began setting down notes. He could not stop. It carried him away, like a ship with all sails spread, running before a stormy wind.

    When his manservant cautiously entered the room the next morning, Handel was still sitting at his desk writing. He did not reply when Schmidt timidly asked whether he could be of any help in copying the music, just uttered a low growl. No one ventured to approach him again and he did not leave the study for three weeks. Handel knew nothing of the hour in those weeks. He lived entirely in the sphere that measures time only by musical beat and rhythm; he moved only with the current that surged from him as the work flowed closer to the sacred rapids of its conclusion.

    At last, on 14 September, the work was finished. What before had been only dry, sere language now  blossomed and sang, never to fade. The miracle of the will had been worked by the inspired soul, just as the paralysed body had once worked the miracle of resurrection. Handel rose to his feet, with difficulty. The pen dropped from his hand. The strength had gone out of him. His body was tired, his mind confused. He fell on his bed and slept like the dead.

    His manservant knocked softly at the door three times that morning but no sound could penetrate the depths of that sleep. Handel lay motionless, like a dead hero on the field of battle after gaining the victory. When Handel still would not wake in the evening – he had been lying there for 17 hours – Schmidt went for the doctor again. He did not find him immediately, for Dr Jenkins had gone out to fish on the banks of the Thames. At last, though, the pony trotted off to Brook Street with the pair of them.

    But there stood the manservant, waving to them with both arms. “He got up!” he shouted. “And now he’s eating like six porters. He ate half a Yorkshire ham in no time at all. I’ve had to pour him four pints  of beer, and still he asks for more.”

    Sure enough, there sat Handel before a groaning board, like the Lord of Misrule. No sooner did he set eyes on the doctor than he began to laugh, and gradually it became a vast, an echoing, a booming, a hyperbolical laughter. “Devil take me!” cried Dr Jenkins in amazement.

    Handel looked at him with a smile, his eyes sparkling. Slowly, he rose and went over to the harpsichord. He sat down, and softly, half speaking and half singing, began the melody of the recitative “Behold, I tell you a mystery” – the words from Messiah. But as soon as he brought his fingers down the music carried him away. On he played and on, singing, all the way to the final “Amen, amen, amen”. The room was almost shattered by those notes. Dr Jenkins stood there as if benumbed. And when finally Handel rose, the doctor remarked, with awkward admiration: “Good heavens, I never heard anything like that before. You must have been possessed by the Devil!” Handel turned away and said so softly that the others could hardly hear it: “No, I think it was God who possessed me.”

    Several months later, two well-dressed gentlemen knocked at the door of the house in Abbey Street, Dublin, that he was then renting. They had heard that he meant to give the premiere of his new oratorio, Messiah here, even before London heard it. They had  come to ask whether the master might not  donate the takings of that premiere to the Society for Relieving Prisoners and to the sick in Mercer’s Hospital. But, of course, they  said, this donation would be the proceeds of the first performance only; profits from the others would still go to the master.

    “No,” Handel said quietly, “no money for this work. I will never take money for it, never. It shall always go to the sick and the prisoners. For I was sick myself, and it cured me; I was a prisoner and it set me free.”

    At last, on 7 April 1742, came the final rehearsal. The audience consisted of a few relations of the members of the chorus. A  couple here, a little group there sat dispersed  in isolation around the hall. But as soon as the choruses began to crash out like great  cataracts of sound, a strange thing happened. The separate groups involuntarily moved closer together on the benches, gradually forming a single dark block, listening spell­bound. When the “Hallelujah!” burst out for the first time it brought one man to his feet and all the others rose, too, as if at a signal; they felt you could not remain earthbound in the grip of such power, and stood to bring their voices a little nearer God. Then they went out to tell the news from door to door: a work of music had been written such as had never been heard on earth.

    Six days later a crowd gathered outside the doors of the hall. The ladies had come without hoops in their skirts, the gentlemen wore no swords, so that there would be room for more people. Not a breath was to be heard when the music began. Then the choruses burst out with hurricane force and hearts began to tremble. Handel stood by the organ. He had intended to direct and conduct his work but he lost himself in it. The music became as strange to him as if he had never heard it before. And when the “amen” was raised at the end, his lips unconsciously opened and he sang with the chorus, sang as he had never sung in his life.

    The floodgates were open. The river of music flowed on in him year after year. From now on, nothing could bow Handel, nothing could force the resurrected man back on to his knees. Once again the operatic society he had founded went bankrupt, once again his creditors came dunning him, but now he stood upright and survived all his trials. Old age gradually undermined his strength, weakened his arms. Gout afflicted his legs. At last his eyesight failed. But even with blind eyes, like Beethoven with deaf ears, still he wrote on.

    Handel did not praise his own works but there was one that he loved, Messiah, because in it he had redeemed himself. Year after year he performed the work in London, always donating the proceeds, £500 each time, for the benefit of the hospital. On 6 April 1759, severely ill and 74 years old, he had himself led to the podium of Covent Garden once more.

    There the blind man stood. He swung his arms in time. He sang as gravely and devoutly with the chorus as if he were standing, priestlike, at the head of his own coffin. Only once, when the trumpets sud­denly came in at the words “The trumpet shall sound”, did he start, looking up with his blind eyes as if he were ready now for  the Last Judgement.

    Moved, his friends led the blind man home. They, too, felt it had been a farewell. On his bed, he was still quietly moving his lips. He would like to die on Good Friday, he murmured. This Good Friday would be 13 April, the date when the heavy hand had struck him down, the date when his Messiah was first performed. On the day when all  in him had died, he had risen again.

    And sure enough, his unique will had power over death as well as life. On 13 April Handel’s strength left him. But as the empty seashell echoes to the roaring of the sea, so inaudible music surged within him, stranger and more wonderful than any he had ever heard. Slowly, its urgent swell freed the soul from the weary body, carrying it up into the weightless empyrean, flowing in the flow, eternal music in the eternal sphere. And on the next day, before the Easter bells began to ring, all that had been mortal in George Frideric Handel died at last. 

    This is an edited excerpt from “The Resurrection of George Frideric Handel” in “Shooting Stars: Ten Historical Miniatures” by Stefan Zweig (Pushkin Press, £14.99)


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    Tommy Robinson, real name Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, plead guilty to mortgage fraud last November.

    The English Defence League's founder and former leader, Tommy Robinson, has been convicted and sentenced to 18 months in prison for mortgage fraud, reports the BBC. The fraud amounted to £160,000 over six months. The 31-year-old, from Luton, was sentenced at St Albans Crown Court after pleading guilty in November 2013.

    Robinson - whose birth name is Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, and who goes by a range of different aliases - left the EDL in October 2013, to collaborate with the Quilliam Foundation think-tank on the subject of "counter-extremism". Medhi Hasan wrote for the NS at the time about Robinson's decision:

    Can a fascist renounce fascism? Of course. Can he do it overnight? I’m not so sure. On 6 October, two days before his “defection” to Quilliam, Robinson tweeted that “sharia legalises paedophilia”; on 4 October, he claimed that Islam was “fuelling” a “global war/Holocaust on Christians”. On 2 October, he tried to intimidate a critic of the EDL by turning up unannounced at what Robinson (wrongly) believed was his home.

    Forgive me my cynicism. At a press conference on the day he quit the EDL, the 30-year-old sunbed shop owner from Luton did not apologise for or acknowledge his previous anti-Muslim remarks; nor did he renounce, denounce or disown the EDL. So far, he seems only to have rebranded, rather than reformed, himself. Robinson, however, is an irrelevance. So, for that matter, is the EDL. The hate-filled antics of these balaclava-clad thugs have distracted us from a much bigger issue: Islamophobia went mainstream long ago, with the shameless complicity of sections of the press.

    Look at the numbers. A Cardiff University study of 974 newspaper articles published about British Muslims between 2000 and 2008 found more than a quarter of them portrayed Islam as “dangerous, backward or irrational”; references to radical Muslims outnumbered references to moderate Muslims by 17 to one.

    Look at the little-noticed conclusion of Lord Justice Leveson’s November 2012 report into the “culture, practices and ethics” of the press: “The identification of Muslims . . . as the targets of press hostility . . . was supported by the evidence seen by the inquiry.”

    Look, above all else, at the way in which headlines, stories and columns reflect much of what Robinson says – without being tainted by the fascist whiff of the EDL.

    “There is a two-tier system, where Muslims are treated more favourably than non-Muslims,” Robinson claimed in a speech in Leicester in February 2012. Consider, however, the lurid headline on the front of the Daily Express, in February 2007: “Muslims tell us how to run our schools”. Or the Daily Star’s splash in October 2008: “BBC puts Muslims before YOU”.

    Spot the difference?

    Read more.

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    Could we renationalise the rail network? Why is Lena Dunham's Girls such a lightening rod for criticism? Why has a space probe just woken up on a comet millions of miles away? So many questions.

    On this week's podcast, Rafael Behr, Helen Lewis and George Eaton discuss the progress of London's Crossrail project and the possibility of a gradual re-nationalisation of the train network under Labour, Caroline Crampton asks why Lena Dunham's Girls is such a lightning rod for criticism, and Ian Steadman tells us about the space probe which has just woken up on a comet millions of miles from the Earth.

    You can subscribe to the podcast through iTunes here or with this RSS feed:, or listen using the player below.

    Want to give us feedback on our podcast, or have an idea for something we should cover? Visit for more details and how to contact us.

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    With the best intentions, modern medicine is leading many people to opt for invasive surgery they do not need.

    Something peculiar is happening in the United States thyroid cancer rates are soaring. The disease is almost three times more prevalent than it was 30 years ago, making it the fastest-increasing cancer in the US. Treatment requires the removal of all or part of the gland. The operation is difficult. The thyroid sits in the neck, just in front of the windpipe, and inadvertent damage to important structures, including the nerves that control the vocal cords, is not uncommon.

    Still, if you’ve got cancer and a delicate operation is required to cure it, then an operation is what you’re going to want, regardless of the risks. And you won’t mind lifelong treatment with thyroid hormone replacement afterwards, either.

    Thankful survivors have joined a campaign called “Light of Life” to raise awareness of the disease. A purple scarf is their symbol, in much the same way that British breast cancer charities have adopted the pink ribbon. Advertisements urge people to “check your neck” or, more precisely, to ask a doctor to check it for you.

    Yet over the past 30 years, death rates from thyroid cancer have remained resolutely unchanged: no more Americans will die from the disease this year than succumbed to it in 1983. One possible explanation is that US doctors are getting better at treating it, saving ever more lives among the escalating numbers of affected people. That would be good if it were true but the reality is very different. The burgeoning incidence of thyroid cancer is an artefact of medical technology and many patients are being subjected to unnecessary treatment.

    To understand this, you need to know about Vomit or “victims of medical imaging technology”. The acronym was coined in 2003 by Richard Hayward, a consultant neurosurgeon at Great Ormond Street Hospital in London. Vomit suggests that the more successful we become at imaging the body, the more abnormalities we will find that we don’t know how to interpret. Take a random sample of healthy New Statesman readers and put them through a CT scanner, for example, and around 25 per cent of you would prove to have a lump in an organ somewhere.

    US doctors, with ready access to expensive technology and a morbid fear of litigation should they “miss” something, rely heavily on imaging. Chest CT scans, routinely used to assess lung symptoms, take in the thyroid gland, as do MRI scans performed to investigate neck pain. Around 16 per cent of these scans turn up incidental lumps in the thyroid, most of which are too small to feel on examination.

    Having raised an alarm, something more invasive a biopsy follows. Tissue from the thyroid lump is examined under the microscope by a pathologist and that’s where the problem is compounded. Pathologists are good at recognising thyroid cancer they’ve spent their careers analysing samples obtained from aggressive tumours that have presented clinically as enlarging masses. And the tissue from the incidental lumps is often indistinguishable from clinically important cancers, setting in train the full curative machine. Most of the operations are unnecessary, however. A Japanese study, published in 2010, followed 340 such patients who volunteered for surveillance rather than surgery. Only a tiny minority had any tumour growth and some lumps even regressed during the six years of follow-up. No one came to any harm.

    Cancer, long the feared foe, is evidently more nuanced than we have appreciated. For every tumour capable of causing disease or death, many more lie dormant or are dealt with by our immune systems and never progress. Using powerful imaging technologies developed in recent decades, we can now detect these indolent cancers but we have no way of predicting which can be left alone safely.

    The problem is not unique to the thyroid gland, nor to the US. It is now accepted that for every life saved by the UK national breast screening programme, another three women are diagnosed and aggressively treated for a screen-detected cancer that would never have caused disease. And each year, thousands of men are diagnosed with prostate cancer that won’t ever pose them a problem.

    It’s a horrible dilemma for patients caught up in the process: cancer provokes inevitable fear. Even given the option of surveillance, most people will choose radical treatment, with all the attendant side effects and risks. Until we can reliably predict the behaviour of the cancers we are detecting by screening or by accident, doctors are arguably causing as much or even more harm than good.

    Over-diagnosis of cancer is one of the conundrums that have inspired the “Too Much Medicine” campaign, an international medical movement concerned with the damage modern medicine is inflicting, albeit with the best of intentions. It is likely to be an important influence in the coming years and is something to which this column will no doubt return.

    Next week: the trials of a country vet

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    This is the place to which the Beloved is committed.

    That’s that, then. I’ve booked a ticket to go to Gothenburg in February. The generosity of parents over Christmas has ensured that I can cover the £100 return fare. I have been to Gothenburg before so I know what I’m letting myself in for: last time, the most amusing incident of the whole week was when the wife and I got stuck behind a Norwegian coach trying to do a U-turn in a car park. Our Swedish driver – it was arranged by a newspaper, so we were being given the works by the Gothenburg tourist board – launched into a string of expletive-laden remarks about the “f***ing Norwegians” and then, after a pause, sheepishly apologised, saying that the Swedes sometimes have a bit of a problem with Norwegians, who seem to have nicked most of Sweden’s coastline and therefore all of its oil and swan about the place like Scandinavian versions of Harry Enfield’s Loadsamoney, doing the kinds of things that Swedes can only dream of (such as buying a bottle of wine without taking out a mortgage).

    The rest of the week was dull beyond any possible belief and the only interesting thing that happened did so at a hotel 30 kilometres outside Gothenburg and was unrepeatable in the newspaper for which I was writing (and also, as it happens, involved Norwegians). It was the only time I failed to complete a newspaper assignment.

    And this is the place I am going to be seeing quite a bit of over the next three years, if all goes well. I think you have to be rather fond of someone, to put it mildly, if you’re prepared to go to Gothenburg for them on an even semi-regular basis.

    I believe they have the cheek to call the city “Little London”, ostensibly on the grounds that 18th- and 19th-century British industrialists had a great influence on the place (although I have a dim memory of being told that these pioneers were actually Scottish) but also because they think that they’re very creative and wacky and because there is still one bar that can serve beer without having to serve food, too.

    “It’s just on a much smaller scale,” writes one blogger, quoted in a piece in Metro that I have been looking at to get clued up on the wonders of the city, which, for all I know, might have changed beyond recognition since I was last there. That “on a much smaller scale” rather sounds the death knell, doesn’t it? Besides, London isn’t that bloody great anyway, not any more, not now that the super-rich are infesting the decent bits of it like maggots.

    I might seem ungenerous but this is part of a proven strategy of thinking the worst about a place before I go there in order to be pleasantly surprised. Proven, but not infallibly so. Many is the place I’ve had a hunch would be ghastly and has turned out to be so (Stevenage, for instance), but then this is a phenomenon familiar to all. I am prepared to be pleasantly surprised by Gothenburg, although I will – unless I start doing some serious saving – be seeing the place with the pin-sharp vision of the completely sober, which rarely puts me in a benign and forgiving mood. (My oldest friends all know that it is best to avoid me before six o’clock.)

    One thing that really is worrying me is that in Sweden it is considered extremely rude not to take your shoes off when you visit someone’s home. I suppose this is fair enough, given that the weather is so appalling over there, but I hate – absolutely hate – taking my shoes off in someone else’s home. Who do they think they are? The curators of a shrine or place of worship?

    “We were thinking of taking our shoes off inside,” said one host to me not that long ago, anxiously and hopefully looking down at my Loake Chelseas, of which I am inordinately proud and fond. “I wasn’t,” I said, with what I hoped was a disarming smile, and the matter was closed, for which I am grateful. Had my host known about the state of my socks and my feet, he would have been grateful, too.

    Yet this is the place to which the Beloved is committed. I think she has already decided that it might not be best for us to visit any of her colleagues; then again, the Swedes have a reputation for not being the most spontaneous of people, so she’d probably have to wait six years before being given an invitation. Of course, she might run into some Norwegians and then anything could happen. They might even let us keep our shoes on!

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    Red alert: “dry January” is no fun so drink selectively instead.

    Photo: Gallery Stock. 

    I gave up drinking for a month once. It’s an unpleasant memory but given the number of people who try to have a “dry” January these days it seems a good time to mention abstinence, if only to ponder its shortcomings.

    My month of teetotalism yielded interesting insights, some obvious – drunk people really are the only people who find other drunk people scintillating – others less so. Most surprising was what I missed. More than wine itself, I mourned the endless possibility of the wine list, that pasture of unbounded promise where everything is yours – at least until you make your choice. So what if Fonterenza’s 2008 Brunello di Montalcino is £148 a bottle at the new Mayfair spot Café Murano, or a 2005 Montepulciano d’Abruzzo by Emidio Pepe is £135? Both are interesting wines, on a list that prides itself on its range of small Italian producers, and both are at fairly eye-watering mark-ups: has the former at £40 and the latter at about £20, although neither seems to be available at retail in the UK.

    Until I signal the sommelier, both are mine for the asking, although I may have to answer a few awkward questions from my bank. The French call window-shopping “le lèche-vitrine” – literally, licking the window. I like to lick wine lists.

    We wanted variety, so the options were by the glass or debtors’ prison. For whites, we lined up a Sardinian Vermentino and a Greco di Tufo, both 2012, one from the well-cooked Mediterranean island west of Naples, the other from 80km inland of that notorious city – Greco is a grape grown across Campania but the best are considered to come from Tufo, and of those, Vadiaperti is one of the most lauded producers.

    They couldn’t have been more different. The Vermentino was friendly, with a waft of lemon, but so light it practically evaporated before making landfall on my tongue; the Greco di Tufo, on the other hand, was weighty and richly aromatic. The former is an apéritif, sent whimpering by carbs; the latter held its own against arancini and bread with olive oil – not that the relationship was supposed to be adversarial; it was more like an impassioned debate between two people who like each others’ ideas.

    Italy makes some of the world’s greatest reds: we didn’t drink those. Instead, we tried a Nero d’Avola from Sicily, which was simply too light for the rabbit and ox cheek we were eating, and a Montepulciano d’Abruzzo that was wine to cart to a party – the kind that bears out the mysterious truism that even a wine ignoramus with a palate of unrefined cardboard will unerringly pick the best bottle from a cluster and, in the time it takes you to heft a bottle of tannic rotgut and aim it at the miscreant’s head, drain it. But my suspicion that Ottavio Rube’s youthful Dolcetto would embrace rabbit and olive parpadelle like a long-lost lover proved accurate. There’s something tough about rabbit – character, not texture – that responded well to the cherry and liquorice flavours of this crowd-pleasing grape.

    How to finish? Well, with a Nebbiolo, one of Italy’s oldest and greatest grapes. Not with a Barolo or a Barbaresco, the two villages that give their name to the most famous (and expensive) expressions of Nebbiolo, but with a more humble incarnation from Roero, slightly further north. This 2011 wine didn’t need ten years’ ageing to soften its tannins, like some of its more venerable brethren, but nor did it need propping up: “backbone!” say my notes.

    A resolution to spend January learning seems to me far more admirable than one to go cold turkey, which teaches us only that abstinence is easier than moderation – anything is easier than moderation – but broadens neither mind nor palate. So go on: lick a wine list and see the world.

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    Canine transmissible venereal tumours (CTVT) is one of only two natural transmissible cancers, and could hold the key to better organ transplants in humans.

    Veterinary biologists have discovered that a sexually-transmitted cancer found in dogs around the world first originated 11,000 years ago, making it potentially the oldest living mammalian creature.

    The study from the Wellcome Trust’s Sanger Institute, published in Science, analysed the genome of canine transmissable venereal tumours (CTVT), a disease that is one of only two known cancers of its type to have been observed in the natural world (the other, transferred via bites, affecting Tasmanian devils). It’s not a cancer caused by the transfer of a virus, like with cervical cancer and the HPV virus in humans - it’s the transfer of actual cancerous dog cells from dog to dog.

    “They are actually a parasite, they need to have their host in order to survive, but they’re actually derived from the same species as their host,” Dr Elizabeth Murchison, the study’s lead author, explained to me. “They’re quite a strange disease. They are an infectious disease, but they’re originally from the same species as their host, which makes them a kind of very tricky to combat.”

    “It’s the oldest continually surviving mammalian lifeform that we know of,” she said. “It is almost immortal.”

    Genome analysis of samples from a dog in Brazil and another Australia found that the cancer had undergone a huge number of mutations, in the order of two million, since it first began metastasising within the first dog to contract it.

    Murchison said: “Between humans we each have about three million mutations, the natural variance that makes us different to other people. Similarly dogs have about three million natural variants that make one dog different to another dog. But cancers themselves, in humans, don’t tend to differ from their host very much. They usually have between 1,000 and 5,000 mutations in the genome that makes the cancer different to the host. Whereas this dog cancer has acquired about two million, which is almost making it like a different individual to the original host that gave rise to it.”

    Relying on recent research which found that, within cancer patients, the number of mutations within a cancer correlates both to the type of cancer and the age of the patient, the study team were able to trace back in time to the point at which mutations must have started - giving the age of CTVT at 11,000 years.

    Yet CTVT stayed within the small population where it first emerged for roughly 10,500 years, until suddenly spreading elsewhere around the globe - a time that coincides with the beginnings of the European age of exploration. While there’s no way to know where in the world the cancer first appear (yet), the earliest known historical mention of it is by a London doctor in 1810.

    With the information from the origin dog’s genome, the team was able to create an image of what it probably looked like. Here's a video from the team further explaining their work:

    What’s more, the cancer appears to have been caused by in-breeding.

    “It was a relatively inbred individual,” explains Murchison. “Similarly, the Tasmanian devils are relatively inbred population - they live on an island, and they have a small population. The cancer might have originated in a dog that lived in an in-bred population, but from there it managed to adapt into all sorts of out-bred dogs. It can even survive in other species of canids, including jackals and coyotes and foxes. It’s pretty remarkable.”

    Theoretically, this type of cancer could emerge at any time in any species, Murchison pointed out, but the experience of the dog and Tasmanian devil transmissible cancers - and from a third variant, which emerged briefly in a population of laboratory hamsters in the 1960s - seems to indicate that in-bred populations are more at risk. There are human populations which suffer from low genetic diversity around the world, and this research could be important in understanding transmissible cancers in the case of a variant appearing.

    “These cancers have to overcome one of the most fundamental immunological barriers, and how they do it is still a mystery,” Murchison said. “It’s incredibly important to understand how they do it, as it has implications for how cancers evade the immune system, but also potentially how other infectious diseases might work, and have implications for how to design better methods for helping transplant recipient patients not to reject their graft transplant organs.”

    Murchison is also keen to see if further research could help the endangered Tasmanian devil, whose variant is much more aggressive than CTVT and which can kill its host in a matter of months.

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

    1. Britain and France are in the same boat (Financial Times)

    Cross-Channel rivalry cannot hide the reality that any ideas about superiority are misplaced, writes Philip Stephens.

    2. It’s true: we’re better off than a year ago (Times)

    Among those in work, all but the richest are now benefiting from the recovery and tax cuts, claims Matthew Hancock.

    3. Steve Webb's pensions U-turn is a dead duck on the dust heap of disasters (Guardian)

    The government's bold assault on the industry has failed to materialise, and the grand theft mis-selling continues, says Polly Toynbee.

    4. Left and right are both wrong about Iain Duncan Smith (Times)

    The man is unfairly demonised by some and distrusted by others, writes Steve Richards. 

    5. Once more, Ukraine’s dreams of freedom are crushed by Moscow (Daily Telegraph)

    History is repeating itself in Kiev, and the west can take no pride in its role, says Con Coughlin. 

    6. Social reform is a moral mission that will define the Tories’ future (Daily Telegraph)

    Peter Lilley’s "little list" has hung over the party for too long – and IDS can heal the wounds, says Fraser Nelson. 

    7. Brighton's council tax revolution could strike a blow for democracy (Guardian)

    Someone must stand up to the bullying of Eric Pickles and the "localism" act, writes Simon Jenkins. Can Brighton's Green party lead the way?

    8. Ed’s 100-year-old recipe won’t work today (Times)

    The Labour leader’s ambitions to reform capitalism will not suit the regulated, global nature of today’s UK economy, writes Philip Collins. 

    9. The plight of Syria's refugees transcends party politics. What’s worrying is that Nigel Farage realised that before our PM (Independent)

    Mr Cameron, unlike Ukip's leader, is a prisoner of strict party discipline, writes Andreas Whittam Smith. 

    10. Look beyond Davos to indebted Detroit (Financial Times)

    If investors want to forecast asset prices in the west, they should look past official numbers, writes Gillian Tett.

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    The claim that almost all earners are better off entirely ignores the cuts to in-work and child benefits. Trying to fix the figures won't work.

    For all the talk of recovery this week, the unpalatable truth remains that most people are still getting poorer. In the last quarter, average weekly earnings rose by just 0.9 per cent, less than half the rate of inflation (2 per cent). As long as the wage squeeze continues, the Tories will struggle to rebut Ed Miliband's warnings of a "cost of living crisis" - and it could cost them the election. While the Conservatives have established a comfortable lead on who would best manage the economy, they continue to trail Labour on who would do most to improve family incomes (the same trend seen during Obama vs. Romney). 

    Aware of this, the Tories have resorted to statistical chicanery that would make even Iain Duncan Smith blush. In an article in today's Times, George Osborne's protégée Matthew Hancock, the skills minister, claims that the "crisis" spoken of by Miliband is a mirage. He writes: "The story is said to go like this: yes, there are a record number of jobs but the rich are getting richer and incomes are falling for everyone else. Right? In fact, wrong."

    While the ONS's recent annual survey of earnings (for April 2012 to April 2013) shows that median wages (2.1 per cent) rose slower than inflation (2.4 per cent) for the fifth year running, Hancock claims that the increase in the income tax personal allowance means that almost everyone is better off. He writes:

    New facts on take-home pay — the pound in your pocket — are stark. Last year take-home pay grew faster than inflation for every group of earners except the top 10 per cent.

    For those in the middle, squeezed by the great recession, take home pay rose by 4 percent. The top tenth were the only group who saw their take home pay grow by less than prices. So the bottom 90 per cent of earners saw the wages they took home rise faster than consumer inflation last year.

    He adds: "[T]he monthly average earnings figures measure income before tax and, thanks to our tax cuts, low and middle-income earners are paying much less of it. Last year we cut the tax paid by a typical taxpayer by £320. By this April most people will be paying £705 less in income tax than before the election. Those on the minimum wage will have seen their income tax bill cut by almost two thirds."

    Were it true that living standards are rising for most people, the Tories would have a better story to tell on the economy. Unfortunately for them, it's not. First, the data used by Hancock takes no account of the cuts to in-work and family benefits introduced by the coalition, such as the real-terms cut in child benefit, the uprating of benefits in line with CPI inflation rather than RPI, and the cuts to tax credits (other major cuts such as the bedroom tax, the benefit cap, and the 10 per cent cut in council tax support were introduced after April 2013). The IFS has consistently shown that almost all families are worse off (see table below) once all tax and benefit changes are taken into account. But the Tories, for entirely political reasons, won't mention this.

    The other main problem with the statistics is that they exclude the UK's 4.36m self-employed workers, many of whom have suffered disproportionate falls in their income, and those who don't earn enough to pay National Insurance (the source of the ONS data), both of which combine to create a more flattering picture. 

    In an attempt to present austerity as progressive, Hancock notes that his figures of choice show that disposable income did not rise for the top 10 per cent. But this was before the government cut the top rate of tax from 50p to 45p in April 2013, handing an average tax cut of £107,500 to the UK's 8,000 income millionaires. The irony is that the one month since 2010 when average earnings rose faster than prices was April 2013 (which the figures used by the Tories conveniently include), when high earners collected the bonuses they deferred in order to benefit from the reduction in the top rate. 

    One almost has to admire the Tories' chutzpah; is trying to convince voters who are worse off (and are all too aware of that fact) that they're actually better off really smart politics? On 5 Live this morning, Robert Halfon, the blue collar moderniser, who has pushed harder than any other Tory for an increase in the minimum wage, tellingly chose not to adopt this tack. 

    Rather than trying to fix the figures to justify their policies, the Tories would be wise to fix their policies to change the figures. 

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    Tom Humberstone’s weekly observational comic for the NS.

    Click to zoom in to a larger image


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    Blue-collar conservatism, a kerfuffle about wearing black tie and the Westminster orgy of backslapping.

    Reports of the death of the Gay Hussar in Soho may have been exaggerated. The whisper is that its Malaysian owners might keep the famed Hungarian restaurant open, withdrawing it from sale. A bid of about half a million has been accepted from an unnamed investor who wished to retain the political tradition of the Labourite bolt-hole. The offer beat the rival £178,000 tabled by the “Goulash Co-operative”, fronted by the MP Tommy “Two Dinners” Watson. The said group includes the Tory renegade peer Michael Ashcroft, the cartoonist Martin Rowson and your correspondent. Goulashistas are already out of pocket by £1.19 each: share certificates drawn by Rowson were sent out with insufficient postage.

    I gave a wide berth to the orgy of backslapping that was the Westminster Correspondents’ Dinner but my snouts were out in force. I hear there was a kerfuffle after the organising committee requested that Dave Cameron wear black tie – a PM haunted by his Buller rig initially resisted. I’d like to have witnessed the In-Justice Secretary, Chris “the Jackal” Grayling, barging three guests out of the way to ingratiate himself with Tim Shipman, the Mail scribbler now appointed political editor of the Sunday Times. I remember when it was reporters who crossed rooms to speak to cabinet ministers.

    The outsized MP for Elmet and Rothwell, Alec Shelbrooke, has taken to describing himself as a “blue-collar Conservative” to pitch for the working-class Yorkshire vote. Both of Big Alec’s parents were teachers and he is a qualified mechanical engineer who worked as a project administrator at Leeds University. If Shelbrooke is “blue collar”, it can’t be long before the Buller Boys Dave, George and Boris start calling themselves lower middle class.

    Harriet Harman’s adviser Ayesha Hazarika was compelled by Labour’s deputy leader, I’m told, to drop her interest in the Coventry North-East seat to avoid a row over jobs. A local councillor, Colleen Fletcher, was picked in December to succeed Bob Ainsworth. Labourites with parliamentary ambitions grumble that Harperson was prepared to endure gibes when her other half, Jack Dromey, was dropped into Birmingham Erdington.

    One MP may have breathed a sigh of relief at the passing of Lord McAlpine. The peer demanded compensation from those who spread rumours he was a paedophile following a poorly researched Newsnight report. McAlpine was innocent. The Speaker’s wife, Sally Bercow, the comedian Alan Davies and the Guardian hack George Monbiot were all forced to grovel. The MP concerned had quickly deleted a retweeted reference, I’m told, and so escaped detection.

    Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

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    In Gordon Brown's backyard, Labour won an 11.25% swing from the SNP, while the Lib Dems finished in fifth place behind UKIP.

    When I recently interviewed Ed Balls and asked how often he spoke to Gordon Brown, he revealed that he'd just received an email from his old boss "about a by-election coming up in the next couple of weeks". That by-election was held last night in the Scottish Parliament constituency of Cowdenbeath, the area represented by Brown at Westminster, and it proved to be a triumph for Labour. 

    After narrowly defending the seat from the SNP in 2011, the party won a majority of 5,488 with an 11.25 per cent swing away from Alex Salmond's party. While it's wise to always be wary of drawing too many conclusions from by-elections, the result does suggest that there is little enthusiasm for Scottish independence among the electorate and that Labour's relentless focus on living standards is resonating with voters. 

    It also offers further evidence of the Lib Dems' plight. The party finished fifth behind UKIP (who didn't even field a candidate last time), with just 425 votes (2.1 per cent). It was a better night for the Tories, who finished third and increased their share of the vote by 2.4 per cent. This may have been from a low base of 7 per cent, but at least, as candidate David Dempsey said, the numbers are moving "in the right direction". And it has been a long time since one could say that of the Tories in Scotland.

    Here's the result in full. 

    Alex Rowley (Lab) - 11,192 votes 55.78% (+9.28%)

    Natalie McGarry (SNP) - 5,704 votes 28.43% (-13.17%)

    Dave Dempsey (Con) - 1,893 votes 9.44% (+2.44%)

    Denise Baykal (UKIP) - 610 votes 3.04% (N/A)

    Jade Holden (Lib Dem) - 425 votes 2.12% (-1.78%)

    Stuart Graham (Victims Final Right) - 187 votes 0.93% (N/A)

    James Trolland (Scotthish Democratic Alliance) - 51 votes 0.25% (N/A)

    Labour majority: 5,488 (27.36%)

    11.25% swing from SNP to Labour

    Turnout: 20,062 (34.78%)

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    The government's new stats ignore all benefit cuts and exclude the 4.4m self-employed workers.

    This morning the government released some interesting new stats on wages. It claims that 90 per cent of people saw their earnings rise in the year to April 2013. As I tweeted earlier this week, the data source that the government are using tells a more positive story about wages than the more regular earnings data that drives most public debate. Here are some quick thoughts on the more technical upsides and downsides of the new numbers. It's important to take these in the round (journalists can read that as a naive plea for no selective quoting!) - but it's fair to say that whatever these stats tell us, they don't tell us much about living standards.

    Upside 1: the government's source — the Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings (ASHE) — is a good one. In fact, it's the most accurate measure we have of earnings and is probably better than the more regular measure of Average Weekly Earnings. ASHE is a direct sample of around 160,000 employees. (It includes everyone whose National Insurance number ends in a particular pair of digits.) By contrast, Average Weekly Earnings is a survey of employers that academics have long had their doubts about (wonks can see the original methodology here). The simple summary is that ASHE is probably a more accurate, if less timely, measure of what is happening to pay.

    Upside 2: because the ASHE data relates to April 2013, before the wider economy turned the corner, it MAY be that wages have improved in the interim. In fact, this is not what we see in the more regular Average Weekly Earnings measure. But again, there may be reasons to believe that AWE is not telling the full story. At the very least, it is unlikely that wage growth has become worse than it was when the ASHE data measured it back in April.

    Downside 1 (and this is a big one): "take home pay" is an unusual measure, and is not widely used by experts. It is not "pay" as such, because it is after taxes, and so it tells us little about the labour market. And it is not "taken home", because it ignores all benefits and tax credits, and so won't pick up true changes in people's incomes— in particular from cuts to welfare for working people. If we want to understand living standards, disposable income per household is a much better measure. And if we want to understand the labour market, gross pay (before tax) is a better measure. Either way, it's important to remember that today's release tells us about just one year in a much longer downturn.

    Downside 2: the government's source (ASHE) excludes some important groups. In particular, it excludes the self-employed. This is now 4.4 million people, a number that has grown sharply in recent years. Again, this is a really big deal, not just because of the number of people, but because we also know that the income of self-employed people has been falling quickly, so this would almost certainly drag down the true figures. Nor does ASHE include people who earn too little to pay National Insurance. Again, this is a group that could plausibly be seeing some weak wage growth—particularly because the minimum wage fell in real terms for the fifth year running in 2013.

    So overall, there are upsides and downsides to this new analysis. In general I think it's helpful to have more data, rather than less. But the only way to get a full account of living standards is to then look at that data in the round.

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    When political historians are dusting off the gravestone of Lord Rennard’s Liberal Democrats, I doubt it will read “killed by feminism”.

    Lord Rennard isn’t saying sorry. The Liberal Democrat peer, who has been accused of multiple incidents of sexual harassment, could have saved a lot of fuss if he had just apologised to the women involved in his case – but he shan’t and he won’t, so he has been suspended. Rennard joins a dispiriting roll-call of powerful male politicians who have thrown public tantrums after being called to account for sexist behaviour.

    You’d think that admitting wrongdoing and moving on might be a relatively easy task for any boy over the age of eight. When it comes to allegations of assault, harassment and rape, however, even the most respected professional men start acting like toddlers – screaming and lashing out, destroying every precious structure within reach and blaming the uppity women for making them do it. The Rennard case fits this pattern: some Lib Dem loyalists have claimed that the furore might “destroy” the party. Forgive me for paying attention to opinion polls, but in ten years’ time, when political historians are dusting off the gravestone of the Liberal Democrat party, I doubt it will read “killed by feminism”.

    Across the political spectrum, women are being tossed under the bus of party positioning. This past week, we also got to watch Nigel Farage of Ukip tell business leaders in the City that women who take time off to have children are “worth less” to employers. The main message here is that social justice ought to bend to the needs of business – core Conservative territory that Farage is keen to stake out, proving to the City that Ukip does more than just incoherent xenophobia and odd weather forecasts.

    The representation of women in party politics matters – and not just to politicians. I recently gave a talk on gender and social issues to a group of sixth-form students who were less than enthused about party politics but keen to talk about the dearth of women in government. Westminster’s hostility to women still sends an important message to the population at large.

    It is not just about numbers. It is not just that young girls considering political work still see a parliament dominated by men. It is also that the few women who make it into those top jobs face relentless harassment – public punishment for their political ambitions – from the press, their peers and their colleagues.

    The harassment of women in political office sends a message to the entire nation about what the role of women should be. In the late 1990s, Labour’s Harriet Harman was subjected to the sort of ridicule and public bullying that would put any bright girl off the idea of running for office. It was bullying that, whatever you think of Harman’s politics, remains as perfect a spectacle of political misogyny as the British elite have to offer. Over a decade later, Stella Creasy – also Labour – is as well known for being threatened and harassed online as she is for her campaigns against payday loan companies. And now Rennard would rather make his entire party look foolish and sexist than say a simple “sorry”.

    Workplaces where the groping of women by high-status men goes unchecked are environments whose vectors of power are clear. Sexual harassment in general is not just about having your bottom pinched or your boobs squeezed on the sly. It is about having your bottom pinched and your boobs squeezed and being unable to say any­thing about it because the groper is an important man – and if you speak up, or reject his advances too loudly, it’s you who risks being called a lying slut and stonewalled out of the party. It is about a culture of silence that proves who has the power.

    The Rennard affair calls to mind the collapse of the Socialist Workers Party, once Britain’s foremost far-left group, over a rape scandal last year. The SWP was unable to hold one of its leaders to account and unwilling to adapt to a world suddenly and uncomfortably full of women demanding to be treated with respect.

    It is far from the only political party to have faced that challenge and faltered. When men on the political right harass women with impunity, that’s just traditional – like racist jokes or fox-hunting – but when men on the left harass women with impunity, it’s because to change their behaviour would be a distraction from the “Great Work”. Whatever the current Great Work is, from a global workers’ uprising to three years of waving through Conservative cuts and calling it compromise, somehow it’s always more important than women’s autonomy.

    This is not just about “women in politics”. Politics does not end at the gates of Westminster but beats a path to every home and every heart. This is about a culture that continues to tell women that our autonomy does not matter, that our freedom is not important, that we must wait till after the revolution or until the next parliament for our silly little lady problems to be addressed – and meanwhile we should shut up and learn to take a groping like grown women.

    No. Outside the world of party politics, more and more women are saying no. They are speaking out and refusing the posture of powerlessness – and if the old political order continues to fight that change, it will find itself skewered on the shards of its own privilege.

    Laurie Penny is the contributing editor of the New Statesman

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    In the week when Oxfam found that the world’s 85 richest individuals are now worth as much as the bottom half of the total population of seven billion, the WEF announced that its 700 members view the increasing gap between the rich and the poor as the biggest threat to prosperity in the next decade

    In the years preceding the crash, inequality was dismissed as a left-wing obsession. Incomes might have been rising faster at the top than at the bottom but everyone was sharing in the fruits of seemingly permanent growth. Tony Blair captured the spirit of the age when he declared that he didn’t go into politics “to make sure that David Beckham earns less money”.

    Yet the financial crisis and the austerity that followed have revived the distributional issues that politicians ignored during the long boom. Britain is a country in which more than half a million people have turned to food banks since April 2013, in which homelessness has risen by 34 per cent since 2010, and in which, for the first time ever, there are more people from working families living in poverty (6.7 million) than from workless and retired ones (6.3 million).

    It is also a country where the typical FTSE-100 chief executive had already earned more than the average annual wage of £26,000 by 8 January this year. George Osborne’s recent announcement that he favours an above-inflation increase in the minimum wage, which is now worth no more than it was in 2004 (and which the Conservatives voted against in 1998), was an acknowledgment that the government cannot remain entirely indifferent to these trends.

    Among the global elite at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, inequality was also on the agenda. In the week when Oxfam found that the world’s 85 richest individuals are now worth as much as the bottom half of the total population of seven billion, the WEF announced that its 700 members view the increasing gap between the rich and the poor as the biggest threat to prosperity in the next decade. They are right to do so. It was inequality that created the conditions for the crash, as low- and middle- income households borrowed excessively to maintain their living standards in the face of falling real wages.

    In the United States, where, remarkably, the wealthiest 1 per cent has received 95 per cent of the proceeds of post- recession growth, the issue has acquired a rare prominence. In a recent speech on the subject, Barack Obama said, “The basic bargain at the heart of our economy has frayed” – the bargain that “if you work hard, you have a chance to get ahead”. He warned: “The combined trends of increased inequality and decreasing mobility pose a fundamental threat to the American dream.” In the US, as elsewhere, extreme inequality is corrosive of opportunity, trust, health and happiness. Over the past three decades, the reduction of taxes on the wealthy (and their outright avoidance), the weakening of trade union power and the monopolisation of markets by corporations have combined to make it a permanent reality.

    If the causes and the symptoms of inequality are easy to identify, the remedies are not. As a result of the long-term trends of globalisation and increased automation, any government seeking to narrow the gap has to run merely to stand still. Western economies are being hollowed out as many of the middle-class jobs that enabled decades of rising living standards after 1945 disappear. Governments, most notably in Scandinavia, continue to redistribute large amounts of income through taxes and benefits but it is increasingly hard for them to do so when the rich are so adept at avoiding their share and when outcomes are so unequal to begin with. The rising hostility of voters to established models of welfare further limits the scope for transfers of this kind.

    But if parties and governments can agree on the problems,  a more intelligent debate about the solutions can begin. These could include a substantial increase in property and land taxes (which are harder to avoid than those on income), greater investment in areas with long-term benefits, such as childcare and education, and improved corporate governance.

    If appeals to egalitarianism fail, then appeals to enlightened self-interest may succeed. Societies that grow ever more unequal are societies in which ever fewer citizens can meaningfully participate, stifling innovation, productivity and growth. Inequality leaves us all poorer: governments can no longer evade this truth.

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    John Goodman, who plays a jazz musician and junkie in the Coen Brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis talks to Kate Mossman about wigs, panic attacks and reuniting with Roseanne.

    John Goodman can’t get comfortable. The sofa’s too deep: it dwarfs him like a giant beanbag. It’s strange to see Goodman looking dwarfed. When he was a young actor in Manhattan, his quarterback dimensions and baby face got him his first auditions. From his breakthrough role as the blue-collar dad Dan Conner in Rose­anne, where he wielded his on-screen son like a tiny rag doll, to his mad, bad Vietnam vet in The Big Lebowski, Goodman’s size and strength have defined him. At 61, he is physically deteriorating: he’s currently awaiting a second knee replace­ment. “I’ve already replaced this right knee,” he says, gesturing, “with a kitchen utensil. So I’m looking for something matching to go with the other one. Possibly an item from the bedroom?”

    In recent years, his physicality has taken on a new, threatening edge. The sense of a body starting to self-destruct is mirrored in his moods, which change like sudden drops in cabin pressure. His latest character for Joel and Ethan Coen – the jazz musician Roland Turner in the Greenwich Village saga Inside Llewyn Davis– might be his vilest yet: a wheezing misanthrope with a heroin works kit dangling from his arm. “He hates everything that isn’t him and can’t be fit inside a hypodermic needle,” he volunteers today, clearing his throat with three thumps to the chest. “The haircut was my idea. I had to throw something in there. It is modelled on [the saxophonist] Gerry Mulligan’s hair.” He adds with mystery: “It has been mentioned as a wig.”

    Talking to Goodman about his work is a game of cat and mouse. Mention character creation or improvising – two things that he’s clearly quite good at – and he’ll claim to have no facility with either. He brought nothing to Inside Llewyn Davis, he says: “It was all on the page. The Coens don’t go for improvisation – they are too careful.” Then, five minutes later, he’s relating Turner’s imagined backstory like an enthusiastic drama student in the “hot seat”. “Joel thought I was a trumpet player and Ethan thought I played sax. But I knew I was a piano player.”

    There’s something in him fighting hard against being unfriendly. It’s there in his explosive laugh and in sudden punctu­ations of surprise or sympathy that come at moments you don’t expect. He is a readerly man, turning words over on his tongue: that was always clear in Roseanne, when he’d throw cod-Shakespearian pronouncements from a doorway, an American football under his arm.

    “What’s funny is that when I was in high school, I tended to get kicked out of classes a lot and sent to the library and for some reason I would read plays. I never could figure out why that was. I just liked dialogue. I suppose I should have it looked into some day but I’d have to care about it enough first,” he says.

    What did he read?

    “Thornton Wilder. Arthur Miller. Tennessee Williams.”

    Why was he kicked out of class?

    “For trying to attract attention to myself.”

    Why did his teachers put him in the library, rather than somewhere more punitive, such as a cupboard?

    “Oh, they put me in a cupboard, too.”

    He’s on the other side of the room now, in search of a glass of water. The sense that Goodman is just about to walk out at any time is a major part of his energy. Fortunately, he has become one of those actors who can steal a film in ten minutes’ screen time (see Flight, The Artist and Argo).

    “Who do you work for?” he asks.

    “A politics and culture magazine,” I tell him.

    “We have politics in the US,” he says. “They’re killing us.” But he won’t go any further into the topic.

    His main place of residence is New Orleans; he lives in the Garden District, once home to his friend Dr John. He met his wife of 25 years in the jazz club Tipitina’s, which was a regular nightspot of the blues pianist Professor Longhair. “There was a Hallowe’en party there,” he says, seating himself back on his giant sofa. “We met briefly but she didn’t care for me much, because I was a little stunned that someone that pretty would say hello to me. So I didn’t really respond and she thought I was a jerk.”

    Goodman lost his summer house and fishing camp to Hurricane Katrina. The place was within the city limits but “felt like it was in the middle of nowhere. People would come along and tie up their boats,” he recalls, “and you’d catch red fish, speckled trout . . . If you went out in the gulf, you’d get snapper and tuna. It’s all gone now, though.”

    He starred in David Simon’s HBO drama Treme, which explored the impact of the disaster on a network of New Orleans musicians – “A good part for me, because I got a lot of anger out. They were running tours to the Ninth Ward [the area worst hit by the hurricane] while people were still suffering, which was disgusting,” he says. Because of work commitments, he has spent just four straight weeks in New Orleans in the past year. “Being away all the time is wearing on me. It’s really wearing on me now. I’m really getting tired of it,” he says, his eyes darkening.

    He lifts his glass of water and blows bubbles into it. “Yak, yak, yak!”

    “I’m very grateful now. I went through a period where I was tired of the business and I really let that get in the way. I let the whole picture slip away from me and I became less grateful. This is an impossible business and there’s a lot of trade-offs. But I’m 61 years old now and I’m still working, with some success, and that’s something.”

    Goodman struggled with alcohol for 30 years and has been sober since 2007. Things got colourful on the set of Roseanne. In one interview, Barr denied there was “any tension” between the two of them, then added: “John used to go berserk on the set all the time, every Friday, just out of nervousness and all the shit . . . John would pound the walls and scream and we’d all be freaking out, scared shitless out of frustration.” In the final series, he was often absent and when he did appear he looked unwell. Barr wrote a heart attack into the script for him. How did that feel?

    He grabs his left arm, eyes bulging, keels forward on the sofa and fakes a cardiac arrest. Then he collapses into a high-pitched giggle. “The show was ready to die after the sixth season and it lasted nine,” he says. “I tried to get out in the seventh. They suggested that if I did so, they wouldn’t mind taking my house from me. Thank you very much, I said, and I stuck around.”

    For years, Roseanne represented a reality never seen before on American TV, capturing the ingenuity of a small-town family struggling with regular unemployment, unaffordable health plans and indecipherable income tax literature. Though it eventually descended into fantasy (the family won the lottery), its central premise – to show, in Barr’s words, that: “Just because we were poor didn’t mean we were stupid” – seems more relevant than ever. “Roseanne and I tried to do a show together about a year and a half ago but NBC were having none of it!” Goodman volunteers cheerily. Downwardly Mobile, which reunited the pair in a trailer park, never made it past the pilot. Surely it would have been network gold?

    “I know! I don’t know why they didn’t want it,” he says, positively beaming. “It was certainly better than most of NBC’s fare! We had a grand old time!”

    And you only made one episode?

    “One was enough!” he says, bafflingly.

    Goodman’s upbringing was blue-collar and middle American, too. The family home was in one of the first suburbs of St Louis, “where veterans returning from the war would have the GI Bill and get cheap housing, move away from the city so that they could have yards of their own with like-minded veterans. There were tonnes of kids, baby boomers running around,” he says. “And school was close by.”

    His father, a post office employee, died of a heart attack when he was two: he never knew him. “All I know is that he was a hard worker,” he says steadily. “He fought in the war, everybody liked him – and that’s pretty much all I know.” Did his mother, Virginia, a waitress at Jack and Phil’s Bar-B-Que in town, talk about his father much? “She was still in love with him,” he says.

    Goodman’s first ambition was to be a footballer: he went to Missouri State University hoping to “walk on” – “which is when you don’t have a scholarship but you try to get on a team, anyway. But with sport, you rely on your body,” he says, “and you have to keep your spirits up. And I didn’t care that much, to be honest. If I wasn’t doing this [acting], I always wanted to be a disc jockey . . .”

    The picture he paints is not entirely convincing: this lazy, uncommitted jock made a fist of the world’s most neurotic profession. He started out in musical theatre, landing a starring role in the Broadway show Big River. “There was a week,” he recalls, “where every night backstage I would have a panic attack. I couldn’t remember the first line. Every night, I was preparing to come out and say, ‘I’m so sorry, ladies and gentlemen, I don’t know why I’m here.’ I’d open my mouth and the first line of the script would come out instead.”

    He is keen to act in London’s West End but will not do so until he has a new knee. In Inside Llewyn Davis, his character can barely walk and spends most of his screen time stuck in the back of a beige Buick Electra in a snowstorm, with a silent valet and a ginger cat (long story). “When Roland Turner was much younger – and this is just me – he was in the vanguard of the California jazz scene,” he says, speculating again. “Now, he’s devolved into this person who rides around in the back of cars . . . He’s established but he’s definitely on his way out.”

    “Do you think he dies inside that car?” I ask him?

    “Let’s just say he does,” he says. “It’d be better for him. I think he’s found the next day all cold and blue and clinging to the cat.”

    Close to the end of the film, there is a memorable shot of an injured cat limping across the road in the dark.

    “Oh, Jesus”, he says, suddenly disgusted. “That image, man. That image. I’d put it out of my mind. I have seen the film twice and it had a very strange effect on me. It raised a lot of questions about success and fear of success. Compromise. What does it cost . . .” He’s winding down, bored or depressed.

    Later that day, the cast and crew – Carey Mulligan, Oscar Isaac, both Coen brothers – assemble at a West End cinema for a special screening. Standing alone in the foyer, Goodman spies an armchair – which, a member of staff informs me, should not have been left out: it was one of the chairs his team had rejected as too small. As he sinks into it, the head of events rushes up, flustered. “I’m jet-lagged,” Goodman says; then, brightening: “But you don’t need to hear that!”

    In the Q&A session after the film, he gets all the laughs. An audience member observes: “You know when John Goodman appears in a Coen brothers film that something bad is going to happen.”

    “In what way?” Goodman asks, innocently. He exits the screening laughing loudly and singing to himself.

    “Inside Llewyn Davis” out now

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    The former leader's savage attack on his successor, Peter Robinson, is a reminder that his party could see that he had outlived his usefulness.

    Imagine if Tony Blair had publicly ripped into Gordon Brown for undermining his leadership and conniving to oust him, telling a television interviewer that his successor was "a beast" and that "his ways are not my ways." Imagine, too, if Cherie Blair got in on the act, adding that her husband’s political career had been "assassinated with words and deeds" adding for good measure that Alastair Darling was "a cheeky sod" in hurrying his departure. It would, of course, be political dynamite.

    Well, not Blair and Brown, but former Democratic Unionist Party First Minister of Northern Ireland, Ian Paisley and his wife Eileen on his successor, Peter Robinson and his deputy, Nigel Dodds. In an explosive interview with veteran journalist Eamonn Mallie for BBC Northern Ireland this week, they let rip, describing the "shameful" way in which Paisley was ousted from the DUP leadership in 2008 at the hands of his younger rivals.

    They recall a meeting with Robinson, Dodds and party officials where they allege Dodds had said that he wanted Paisley to resign at the end of the week, but Robinson – ever the strategist - wanted to choreograph it and ensure that the Grand Old Man of unionist politics stayed around for another couple of months. Eileen Paisley said she had detected "a nasty spirit arising" in the way some in the DUP were patronising her 82-year-old husband and plotting behind his back.

    Current DUP Leader and First Minister, Peter Robinson, denies the meeting even took place and has scrambled for the moral high ground, responding that this wasn’t "the Ian Paisley we knew." He added: "As someone who faithfully served Dr. Paisley for many decades I will make one final sacrifice by not responding and causing any further damage to his legacy beyond that which he has done himself."

    However, barbed insults being the stock-in-trade of Northern Ireland’s political class, his deputy, Nigel Dodds, couldn’t resist, saying of Paisley: "Clearly the passage of time has diminished accurate recall of events.”

    The DUP will be keen to end this row. It doesn’t like washing its laundry in public, so it has posted no reaction to the Paisley interview on its website. Nevertheless, the interview has dominated the Northern Irish media for the past 48 hours, with the tone and content surprising many who had thought Paisley unassailable, having founded the DUP in his own image: bellicose, devout and uncompromising.

    But as the respected Belfast Telegraph columnist Alex Kane has pointed out, the DUP is now a ruthless, well-organised outfit that could see Paisley had outlived his usefulness. Faced with an electoral challenge from the right in the shape of Jim Allister’s Traditional Unionist Voice and with criticism by grassroots hardliners that his so-called "Chuckle Brothers" relationship with Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, was becoming too cordial, "[d]itching the Doc made strategic, electoral, political and media sense."

    Paisley’s historic decision to cut a deal with Sinn Fein with the signing of the St. Andrew’s Agreement in 2006, kick-starting multi-party power-sharing, meant he was no longer the magnetic north of uncompromising opposition to the very idea of working with Catholics. In the eyes of hardliners in both the DUP and Free Presbyterian Church (which Paisley himself founded in 1951), he joined a long, inglorious list of fallen idols who had eventually compromised with the enemy.

    Yet he deserves enormous credit for his final massive gesture of political pragmatism. Unlike David Trimble, the former Ulster Unionist Party leader, Paisley actually delivered the goods. Trimble, by far the most overrated of the many contributors to the Northern Ireland peace process, may have been garlanded as a Nobel Laureate for his efforts, but his weak leadership and inability to stand up to his own hardliners pale against Paisley’s example.

    The arch-unionist Enoch Powell famously remarked that all political careers end in failure. Although he is bitter about the circumstances in which it ended, Ian Paisley’s certainly didn’t.

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