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- 02/06/14--00:46: _Sue Black: ‘‘We mig...
- 02/06/14--00:47: _Dissident Gardens b...
- 02/06/14--00:51: _How the west was lo...
- 02/06/14--00:59: _The lady vanishes: ...
- 02/06/14--01:28: _Star Wars planets m...
- 02/06/14--01:30: _Reviews Roundup | 6...
- 02/06/14--02:01: _I don't feel I “mat...
- 02/06/14--02:35: _The 50p tax rate: f...
- 02/06/14--02:48: _Cameron's plan to f...
- 02/06/14--02:52: _We cannot end FGM i...
- 02/06/14--04:04: _Why is the Canadian...
- 02/06/14--05:04: _Evidence is mountin...
- 02/06/14--05:18: _The NS debate: what...
- 02/06/14--05:25: _Would Scotland real...
- 02/06/14--06:10: _Maths is all Greek ...
- 02/06/14--06:31: _What is it like to ...
- 02/06/14--06:31: _Commons Confidentia...
- 02/06/14--06:50: _Labour 46 points ah...
- 02/06/14--07:27: _Giant fungus towers...
- 02/06/14--08:05: _What happens to Sco...
- 02/06/14--00:47: Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem: A revolution in the head
- 02/06/14--00:51: How the west was lost: Frank Furedi’s First World War
- 02/06/14--01:28: Star Wars planets migrate into position around stellar pairs
- 02/06/14--01:30: Reviews Roundup | 6 February
- 02/06/14--02:35: The 50p tax rate: far from a taxing problem for Labour
- 02/06/14--02:52: We cannot end FGM in the UK without ending it in Africa
- 02/06/14--05:04: Evidence is mounting in the US that fracking causes birth defects
- 02/06/14--05:18: The NS debate: what should we do about education’s Berlin Wall?
- 02/06/14--05:25: Would Scotland really suffer if RBS moved after independence?
- 02/06/14--06:31: What is it like to come from an intensely musical family?
- 02/06/14--06:31: Commons Confidential: A confab of ginger rodents
- 02/06/14--07:27: Giant fungus towers will be grown in New York City this summer
- 02/06/14--08:05: What happens to Scottish MPs in May 2015 after an independence vote?
Sue Black, a leading anthropologist, takes the NS Centenary Questionnaire.
What is the most important invention of the past hundred years?
The World Wide Web. Its ability to bring good (and unfortunately) bad information to the masses and to allow us to communicate globally is revolutionary – but it needs to come with a health warning.
What is the most important scientific discovery of the past hundred years?
The discovery of penicillin. It is impossible to know how many millions of lives have been saved by antibiotics and by penicillin in particular.
And sporting event?
The 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics. It took place in Germany at a time of rising tension and was used as a political platform by Hitler; the response from other nations was pivotal. An event that is supposed to be apolitical and about the best in sport became about elitism and supremacy.
Which book, film, piece of music or work of art has had the greatest impact on you?
If I’m honest, it was The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I was a young girl from Inverness going to university and it was shown at freshers’ week. I was shocked to my core: there were men in women’s clothing, flexible morality, aliens, sex, murder . . . It shook me out of parochialism and into greater acceptance of diversity.
Who is the most influential or significant politician of the past hundred years?
Winston Churchill. He came to embody such a spirit of bulldog British stubbornness – a determination not to be beaten, despite the odds – coupled with an extraordinary ability to instil loyalty and patriotism. He was a born leader.
And author or playwright?
I am a Tolkien fan. His books were some of the first “adult” books I read. On every reading, I have found them to bring something new, on so many different levels.
I am more entranced by the Dutch masters but within impressionist painting, I find such vibrant life in the colours that Monet chose.
How about anyone in business?
Walt Disney. He embodied the determination to succeed, despite being knocked back so many times to the point of failure where others would have given up.
Back again to the 1936 Berlin Olympics – Jesse Owens. It is difficult to find a sportsperson who made a greater statement, not just for his sport but for equality and acceptance.
Andrew Carnegie’s contributions to education, reform and public and civil life continue to influence today.
What is your favourite quotation?
“How far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving and tolerant of the weak and the strong. Because some day in your life, you will have been all of these.” That’s George Washington Carver.
What is your favourite speech?
I have to come back to Churchill and the “We shall fight on the beaches” speech to the House of Commons on 4 June 1940. For its raw determination, stamina, dogged steadfastness and power, it is awe-inspiring. So many of our politicians today can only wonder how that could ever be achieved and still be so influential more than 70 years later.
What do you think will be the most significant change to our lives in the next century?
The most significant change may well be in health care. We will continue to find cures for diseases that have plagued humankind and eradicate many of those that end our lives prematurely.
What is your greatest concern about the future?
My greatest concern is linked to our most significant change – longevity, because although we might live 20 years longer, what will be the quality of our life in that time? We do not have the social infrastructure to ensure that a dependent, ageing population is cared for.
What will be the most dramatic development in your ownfield of work?
The intrusion into our identity: things that were personal and private will no longer be so. The ability to trace people, to cross-link them and to interact with them remotely will bring huge benefits but also an enormous loss of privacy.
What is the priority for the future well-being of both people and our planet?
It has to be conservation and an awareness of our negative impact on our planet. For as long as countries are cavalier about their global responsibilities, selfishnesswill continue to be our downfall.
This book forsakes the traditional linear structure for a series of episodes, zipping back and forth through the decades – and the revolutions.
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £18.99
By coincidence, I read Jonathan Lethem’s Dissident Gardens in the same week the new Coen brothers’ film, Inside Llewyn Davies, came out. The Coens, aged 59 and 56, grew up in Minnesota before moving to New York; Lethem is a decade younger and had the good fortune to be born in the city, which has regularly featured in his fiction.
In a strange act of synchronicity, both works share the same backdrop: Greenwich Village of the early 1960s, with walk-on parts for the Gate of Horn club, Dave Van Ronk and the great electric betrayer himself, Bob Dylan. But while Inside Llewyn Davies remains stubbornly chained to the dives and sidewalks of the folk scene’s patch, Dissident Gardens roams more widely. Alongside Dylan leaving everyone else behind – just a footnote in an early chapter of his life – there’s Norman Mailer, having wild parties beyond the Brooklyn Bridge, an unconquerable divide away. To readers whose peers are always parading their manicured lives on Instagram and Facebook, it’s reassuring to know that “fear of missing out” isn’t a uniquely modern ailment. Most of our lives are lived on the margins of the biography of someone more interesting.
Dissident Gardens, Lethem’s ninth novel, tells the story of three generations of the same family: matriarch Rose, a refugee from Germany desperate to shed her Yiddish and become truly American; her rebellious, idealistic daughter, Miriam; and Miriam’s sonSergius and his almost-half-brother, Cicero, son of Rose’s black policeman lover.
This is a story of three revolutions, each doomed to disappoint. Rose’s life is dedicated to communism, even after Stalin makes his pact with Hitler and she discovers that “Reds [have] become Jews again”. She sacrifices her marriage to the cause, as her husband, Albert, is exiled to East Germany, only for her to be later chucked out of the party for daring to take a lover. (It is never clear whether the fact Douglas Lookins is black, or a police officer, is more offensive to Rose’s fellow travellers.) Miriam’s revolution ends in a forest clearing in Nicaragua; decades later, Sergius latches on to the Occupy movement, which his hippyish girlfriend tells him is “like a way of being, Sergius. Just living differently.” That certainly beats being exiled to East Germany or shot by anti-Sandinistas. In this telling, revolutions are either bloody or pallid.
The book forsakes the traditional linear structure for a series of episodes, zipping back and forth through the decades. This suits the motif of diminishing returns, although it does rob the characters’ deaths of their punch when they are prefigured so heavily. It means also that the book’s best moments are fleeting: Miriam’s appearance on a game show, high on weed, as every question provokes a memory about New York; Rose’s rage when she finds Miriam in bed with a man, leading to an argument where she tears off her clothes and (oh-so-symbolically) shoves her daughter’s head in an oven; Miriam’s day out with an adolescent Cicero, where she lets him know that she knows he is gay with the simple injunction to “wear your love like heaven”.
What prevents me from liking Dissident Gardens is its language: it tries far too hard, intrudes too much, and the misses pile up to the extent that they undermine the hits. Take Cicero’s dreadlocks, “his remote-control mental emanations made into fuzzy tentacles . . . chiaroscuro contrails”, or Miriam’s arousal, “where a trickle of her excessively fervent self had moistened her anus and inner thighs”. Cicero loves her because “he fell in love with the efflorescence of [her] details”. Every detail in this story is efflorescent – and it’s bloody exhausting.
The Great War’s greatest legacy is uncertainty and a never-ending search for meaning.
First World War: Still No End in Sight
Bloomsbury, 288pp, £18.99
A century ago, the First World War tore apart western claims that peace and progress were the fruits of its civilisation. We are still suffering from the fallout of the loss of certainty and cultural self-belief that the war provoked. That, in a nutshell, is the thesis of Frank Furedi’s provocative assessment of the current state of the west, as it struggles to find a set of agreed values, even a common vocabulary, to overcome the loss of ideology and the fragmentation of culture.
Although it is not Furedi’s main purpose, his argument also helps to explain the ambiguity behind current plans to mark the anniversary, which cannot be an uncontroversial celebration or commemoration, because it must confront awkward issues about pacifism and anti-war sentiment both at the time and since.
Ever since 1914, claims Furedi, the west has faced a “perpetual war in search of meaning”. The efforts to discover meaning, particularly the rise of ideologies that violently insisted on just one common set of values, proved self-defeating. Fascism and the far right were entirely deflated by the Second World War (though they are more alive in modern-day Europe and the US than Furedi realises); the communist enterprise fizzled out in 1989 when even the leadership realised that there was no value left in the parroted slogans of Leninism
What is striking, Furedi argues, is that even the more benign ideological movements of the past century, from Keynesianism to social democracy, have lost their power to inspire. Indeed, ever since the First World War the west has been drifting towards a position where culture wars cancel out any certainties and beliefs, and leave people cynically unprepared to accept anything at face value. For proof, he cites an American opinion poll that found at least a third of respondents willing to agree that 9/11 was the result of a government conspiracy.
Furedi examines the search for meaning across the whole 20th century. Wars, he argues, are an important way of cementing at least a temporary sense of meaning, since victory in the world wars and cold war was seen as an important end in itself. Wars can also give definite, if brief, endorsement of a nominally shared culture, whether that is the German pursuit of a new Germanic civilisation to protect its cultural values (perhaps the greatest irony of all for a state bent on genocide), or the vague Anglo-American pursuit of a fresh democratic start in 1945 after dropping millions of tons of bombs on the very peoples they hoped to liberate. The cold war was even more important as a source of proxy meaning, since it provided the west with an instant enemy and fuelled the assumption that anything the Soviet bloc did must by definition be the opposite of what the west stood for.
Furedi sees the attempt to find certainty in war, in the most violent of centuries, as simply a postponement of a wider crisis of meaning and identity for the west. Moreover, the current war on terror has shown the limits of the use of war as an instrument to summon up a shared cultural identity. The war on terror divides communities, provokes internal tensions and is not demonstrably about preserving “our way of life”, even if a common agreement could be found about what that is.
He highlights the efforts to find a language to mask the reality of this war by shifting the acronyms from Bush’s GWOT (global war on terrorism) to Obama’s OCO (overseas contingency operation). The war on terror paradoxically needs its own terror to function effectively, whether that is concentration camps at Guantanamo Bay or drone strikes on Pakistani villages. This is a war devoid of real meaning, a long war with no end in sight, mimicking the crisis that Furedi believes the First World War opened up a century ago.
The end of the real wars in 1989, with the collapse of communism, allowed the perennial culture wars of the west to take centre stage. In the absence of ideologies in their earlier 20th-century sense, the west has faced a crisis of self-belief and authority. Culture clashes expose the absence of any consensual agreement about the values that animate modern western societies, while the shift from a “way of life” to the current obsession with individual “lifestyles” is evidence, Furedi believes, of a flight from politics and old-fashioned civic culture. Belief in progress, economic individualism, the family, the virtues of the parliamentary system and the rational character of modern institutions might still be used occasionally as rhetoric by the political elite but people now see through it.
Furedi identifies a profound cynicism and self-absorption as characteristic of modern western populations, leaving people with a failure of meaning in their lives beyond the mundane and the hedonistic. He might well have added that the revolution in just the past decade that has put tablets and smartphones into millions of hands has accelerated the western retreat into the inner zone and the collapse of real-world civic or political engagement. Virtual worlds construct a new and potentially dangerous reality. In video games such as Call of Duty, youngsters now zap the Taliban electronically while having no understanding whatsoever of why small numbers of western soldiers are zapping the Taliban for real.
Furedi puts much of the blame for this situation, which he clearly regrets, on the feebleness of liberal democracy’s efforts to define itself. This was conspicuous in the interwar years, when fascism and communism seemed infinitely more exciting and exacting than old-fashioned liberalism. Furedi cites a meeting in Paris in 1937, called to form an international network that would define what the modern liberal stood for and save it from extinction. The particpants argued about neoliberalism, individualism, liberalism of the left – but could find no agreed definition.
In the 1960s and 1970s, when liberal politicians were confronted with youth rebellion (or, in Germany and Italy, hard-headed youth violence) and economic slowdown, it was even more evident that liberal democracy had a poorly articulated sense of its core values. Today’s liberals find it difficult to square the circle of extensive and obtrusive state control with the old-fashioned utilitarian liberalism inherited from John Stuart Mill. In the absence of that certainty, Furedi suggests that we have what Alvin Gouldner called a New Class (though class may not be the right word) that wants to control everything in a narrow, technocratic sense. We face government by a fussy, rule-obsessed administration rather than through a liberal and liberalising consensus.
This is certainly a thesis worth taking seriously. But it is not without some evident drawbacks. Though ostensibly rooted in the history of the century since the First World War, the argument is, in reality, historically abstract. There are obvious differences in the way western societies have responded to the challenges posed since 1918. Furedi’s account is too general to absorb these contrasts and, for all the references to a range of nations, his argument fits best with Britain and the US and their prolonged crisis about the core values for a pluralistic, apparently democratic state.
The abstraction extends to the populations under discussion, which, as he well knows, were and still are socially, ethnically and culturally diverse. It may well be the case that anxiety about meaning is the condition of the main body of the western intellectual elite but it is by no means clear that it extends to all sectors of the population, many of whom would not be preoccupied with the way that identity is shaped by intellectual discourse or, in the case of authoritarian states, by the many manifestations of propaganda.
There is also the problem of how the “west” is defined, since its consumerist ambitions and policies of human-rights entitlement are exported globally, though not always with success. Does the search for meaning include Japan, with its strong links with global consumerism? Does it include Turkey, keen to become a European member but distrusted by many Europeans precisely because its “identity” is regarded as alien? The west in Furedi’s discourse is also something of an abstraction while the other, the “non-west” is surely important in shaping how western populations now view their own identity.
Indeed Furedi’s insistence that the current crisis is a domestic problem – caused by internal culture clashes about meaning and value – sidesteps the most important issue today, which is how the west will define itself in relation to the new power bases in China, India or Latin America. The attempt to export “western” democracy to the Middle East has been one long story of disasters; now the west will have to think about how new global players may try to export their culture to the west, an ironic reversal of the world a century ago.
Finally, what is not clear from Furedi’s argument is why a plurality of cultures or the absence of meaning should be a concern at all. The figure hanging over all this discussion is the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (oddly absent from this account), whose challenge to the bourgeois values and Christian hypocrisy of his age still informs intellectual life today. Shared values and political consensus can be stifling and coercive. If millions of Americans believe in creationism and millions do not, this does not mean that liberal consensus is doomed. It simply means that in a democracy where tolerance (the keystone of Mill’s liberalism) is a central value, there ought to be real differences.
It is worth reflecting on what might have been if the First World War had not happened and western certainty and self-assertion had remained unchallenged. A perennial uncertainty and self-awareness may not have been such a bad legacy after all.
Richard Overy’s books include “The Morbid Age: Britain and the Crisis of Civilisation, 1919-1939” (Penguin, £16.99)
Dickens’s mistress Nelly Ternan is a reminder of how much great male authors owe to their forgotten wives and muses.
We see them everywhere, the invisible women; everywhere in books, that is. They are in the dedications (“To Cynthia/Emma/ Sarah, who was there”), in the acknowledgements (“. . . and finally I would like to thank my wife, without whom . . .”) and increasingly in the titles – Nora: the Real Life of Molly Bloom; Véra: Mrs Vladimir Nabokov; Zelda Fitzgerald: Her Voice in Paradise; and Claire Tomalin’s The Invisible Woman: the Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens, which has now been adapted into a subtle and moving film directed by Ralph Fiennes (who stars as Dickens, with Felicity Jones as Ternan). When Tomalin began her research into Dickens’s mistress, she found that Nelly Ternan had “vanished into thin air”. Nora, Véra, Zelda and Nelly are writers’ Wags, which in this case stands for “wives and ghosts” – and the best ghost stories have long been found in literary biographies.
“Marriage interferes,” warns the great writer Henry St George in The Lesson of the Master by Henry James. The misanthrope John Fowles disagreed. “A writer’s wife,” he said, “is vital. Always, without exception.” His first wife, Elizabeth, was his chauffeur, chief editor and the “ghost”, as he put it, for several female characters. When she died in 1990, Fowles’s fiction dried up. Ernest Hemingway, according to a friend of his, needed “a new woman for each big book”. Hemingway had four big books and four wives.
Behind most great male authors, there is a chief muse and bottle washer; a one-woman literary agency. Wags are as different as the writers they serve but the perfect Wag will provide the inspiration for the writing, then read it, praise it, edit it, copy or type it (Sophia Tolstoy copied War and Peace seven times) and deliver it to the publisher. She will negotiate royalties, field phone calls, respond to fan mail, keep the children quiet (Elizabeth Fowles sent her two-year-old daughter to a convent) and remain invisible. This last clause is vital: we prefer to imagine our writers toiling away in solitude rather than suckling on the teat of an all-singing, all-dancing, round-the-clock personal administrator.
In George Eliot’s Middlemarch, Dorothea Brooke aspired to the life of the literary Wag. Filing her husband’s notes to The Key to All Mythologies would allow her a small part in the improvement of the world. “Many who knew her,” wrote Eliot, “thought it a pity that so substantive and rare a creature should have been absorbed into the life of another” – but what were the options for intelligent women who wanted to make their mark? The best that Dorothea could hope for was to live the life of another to the full.
Sophia Tolstoy, the world’s most unhappy writer’s wife, described her marriage to Tolstoy as a “sacrifice”. When Fowles visited Thomas Hardy’s former home, he found a crime scene. Above the study where Hardy produced Tess and Jude were the two “miserable attic rooms” in which Emma, Hardy’s first wife, lived and died. “What is the cost of a masterpiece?” Fowles wondered, and he wrote a poem about a mason who built a bridge that kept falling down. It would only stand, the mason was told, if he buried his wife below its foundations. So he buried his wife alive and the bridge survived. In an interview in 1984, Fowles said he wished that “someone would study novelists’ wives”. He added hastily: “And husbands”. He was right to concede that novelists can also be women but it is hard to think of a man who has been sacrificed on the altar of his wife’s book. Leonard Woolf did not slip out of history so Virginia Woolf could write.
When Fowles made his wish, he didn’t know that it had already come true a year earlier, with the publication of Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages by Phyllis Rose. A study of writers’ wives – and husbands – Parallel Lives changed the genre of literary biography.
It now seems such a simple idea but at the time the originality of Rose’s subject was astonishing. The Victorian assumption that a biography should be the extended CV of a public figure was proving hard to dislodge. What possible purpose could there be in exploring private life? Rose examined the cost for Jane Welsh of being married to Thomas Carlyle; for Catherine Hogarth of binding herself to Charles Dickens; for Effie Gray of accepting John Ruskin; for George Henry Lewes of setting up house with George Eliot; for Harriet Taylor of choosing John Stuart Mill. Her conclusions were grim. The two Georges, who weren’t married and who both wrote, were the only couple able to sustain a happy relationship.
Five years after Parallel Lives, Brenda Maddox’s Nora, her biography of Mrs James Joyce, appeared. Three years after that, in 1991, The Invisible Woman was published. “In the scale of things,” Tomalin wrote of the actress for whom Dickens abandoned his wife and ten children, “Nelly is not an important person.” The inspiration for Estella in Great Expectations, Bella Wilfer in Our Mutual Friend and Lucie Manette in A Tale of Two Cities, Nelly matters to us because she was embedded in Dickens’s psyche and Dickens is embedded in ours. And Tomalin’s book mattered because it allowed biography to become ghost-hunting.
The real Estella: Nelly Ternan, circa 1860. Photo: Getty.
Lives of wives rolled into the bookshops. In 2007, even Mrs Shakespeare was given a life of her own by Germaine Greer. Ann Hathaway, Greer explained in Shakespeare’s Wife, had “left a wife-shaped void in the biography of William Shakespeare, which later bardolaters filled up with their own speculations”.
William and Ann Shakespeare spent much of their marriage apart but most committed writers are unable to function without the Wag. Despite playing the alienated author card, Vladimir Nabokov was never without Véra, his wife of 50 years. According to her biographer, Stacy Schiff, Mrs Nabokov more than fulfilled the job requirements of the invisible woman. Nabokov’s first and sharpest critic, she cut up her husband’s food, carried a gun for his protection and saved Lolita from the flames when he despaired of it (“We’ll not be throwing this away,” she said, picking out the charred pages). Like Nelly Ternan, Véra sought invisibility. Schiff has described how the more Mrs Nabokov tried to disappear, the larger and larger she became for her.
Wordsworth, who embodied the myth of the artist as a solitary genius, had the support of three Wags: his wife, Mary, his sister-in-law, Sara Hutchinson, and his sister Dorothy. His “devotees”, as Coleridge noted bitterly, did “almost his very eating and drinking . . . for him”.
Wordsworth never came close to wandering lonely as a cloud. The poem in which this line appears was inspired by Dorothy’s journal account of seeing daffodils dancing by the lake. Its most celebrated image – “They flash upon that inward eye,/Which is the bliss of solitude” – was suggested by Wordsworth’s wife.
“Wordsworth” is the name given to a cottage industry and the poet’s devotees were, inevitably, content to remain in the shadows. Dorothy, who was as shy as a badger, has now emerged – I wrote a book about her called The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth– but few women in literary history have left a wife-shaped void as large as that of Mary Wordsworth.
Strange to say but many writers, Wordsworth and Tennyson included, are averse to the act of writing. Once they have heard the words in their heads, an amanuensis is needed to put them down on paper. Wielding a pen gave Wordsworth a disabling knot in the side of his stomach and so, strictly speaking, Dorothy wrote most of her brother’s poetry.
Similarly, Emily Tennyson was responsible for the preservation of many of her husband’s lines that would otherwise, as Tennyson blithely put it, have “gone away on the north wind”. According to Ann Thwaite in Emily Tennyson: the Poet’s Wife, Emily burned Tennyson’s bad reviews before he saw them, protected him from guests he might consider a bore (a role ascribed also to Jane Carlyle) and dealt with his sacks of correspondence. Tennyson, so he said, would “as soon kill a pig as write a letter”.
Not all Wags have such proficient secretarial skills. Nora Barnacle, whose husband, James Joyce, used her unpunctuated prose for the voice of Molly Bloom, never read, let alone proof-read, Ulysses. “Sure, why would I bother?” she asked. “It’s enough that he talks about that book and he’s at it all the time.” Joyce set Ulysses on 16 June, the momentous day when Nora first made a “man” out of him. Without Nora, there would have been no Ulysses; nor would Joyce have written “The Dead”, the finest short story in the language. It was Nora’s memory of a lover who died young that Joyce gave to his character Gretta Conroy, whose revelation that she had once loved Michael Furey momentarily derails her husband.
Nora’s job was to look after reality while Joyce was off in his elsewhere; she fed him, held his hand, chose his clothes and, as Brenda Maddox puts it, “cut him down to size” and reassured him, “every time she opened her mouth, that Ireland was not far away”. Schiff writes something similar about the role of Véra for Nabokov: she gave her exiled husband “an atmosphere of Old World taste” and the pleasure of her “exquisite, uncorrupted Russian”.
It is the fate of the Wag to have her personality plundered. D H Lawrence described the role of Frieda, his aristocratic German wife, as to keep him “in direct communication with the unknown” and he used her as the model for Ursula Brangwen in The Rainbow and Women in Love and Connie Chatterley in Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
Similarly, many of Zelda Fitzgerald’s remarks found their way into the mouths of her husband’s heroines. When she had said nothing of note, Scott Fitzgerald would raid Zelda’s letters and diaries for material. “The most enormous influence on me,” he told Edmund Wilson, “in the four and a half years since I met her has been the complete, fine and full-hearted selfishness and chill-mindedness of Zelda.”
My guess is that biography has changed more over the past 30 years than writers’ egos. While Xerox machines and computers have reduced the workload of many a Wag, for every writer there is still a ghost. In The Lesson of the Master, the young writer Paul Overt asks Henry St George if there are “no women who really understand – who can take part in the sacrifice”. “How can they take part?” replies St George. “They themselves are the sacrifice.”
Ralph Fiennes’s film “The Invisible Woman” is released on 7 February. The book, by Claire Tomalin, is published in a new edition by Penguin (£9.99)
One of Kepler’s most exciting discoveries was proving the existence of circumbinary planets: planets that orbit two stars, which are themselves bound together by gravity in an often-tight orbital dance (just like Luke Skywalker’s home planet of Tatooine in Star Wars).
The giant planet Kepler-34b orbits round two stars. Now that’s just greedy. Image: David A. Aguilar
Planetary science is beginning to catch up with science fiction. Since the launch of the Kepler space telescope in 2009, a deluge of planets outside of our solar system has been found, with many oddball, exotic worlds among them. One of Kepler’s most exciting discoveries was proving the existence of circumbinary planets: planets that orbit two stars, which are themselves bound together by gravity in an often-tight orbital dance.
Luke Skywalker’s home planet of Tatooine – invented by George Lucas' for the Star Wars series – was envisioned to exist in this kind of binary system. Now, using computer models, a team from Bristol University has shed more light on how this kind of planet was formed.
In the beginning
Planetary scientists are in general agreement that planets form inside a thin, gaseous disk surrounding nascent stars. Within this disk, solid particles (evocatively named “dust”) collide and progressively grow to asteroid-sized bodies. These bodies, called planetesimals, are the essential bricks of planet formation. Further collisions among them build protoplanets – rocky, Earth-sized bodies.
Further out from the central star, water and other compounds “freeze out” and become part of the solid component. Past this so-called “ice line”, protoplanets can grow even larger and amass thick, massive atmospheres. This sharp divide between small, Earth-sized planets close to the central star (Mercury to Mars) and giant planets further out (Jupiter to Neptune) is easily recognised in the Solar System.
For this theory to work, it demands an incredible feat: growth from microscopic dust particles more than a hundred times smaller than a grain of sand, all the way to Jupiter-sized objects. It is a very delicate process, involving many physical mechanisms, some of which are still poorly understood today.
One sticking point is the stage in which planetesimals collide. Planetesimals need to collide surprisingly gingerly in order to come together; smash them too fast, and they will break into smaller rocks. Regions with high-speed collisions are sterile for planet formation, as no further growth can occur. This is why the recent discovery of circumbinary planets had astronomy theorists raise an eyebrow (or two).
There are few environments more violent than a binary star system. In the early stages of planet formation, the powerful gravitational perturbations around two stars should lead to destructive collisions that grind down the material.
And yet, all circumbinary planets discovered so far orbit very close to their parent binary stars. So close, in fact, that if they were any closer, their orbit would be destabilised to the point of ejection from the system or collision with one of the two stars. This is because the stars, moving along on their orbit, tug and perturb the planet with their gravity from different directions. Inside this unstable region, then, no planet could survive for long.
The Bristol University team devised sophisticated computer simulations of the early formation stages of the giant circumbinary planet Kepler-34(AB)b in order to better understand its birth environment. Their models found that at the current location of the planet, impacts between planetesimals would always be catastrophically destructive. Only far away from the gravitational pull of the two stars can we expect collision speeds to be low enough for planet building to occur.
Explaining giant planets in a location where they should never have been able to form requires invoking an old idea: that of planetary migration.
The first giant planet discovered outside of our solar system, 51 Peg b, orbits its parent star closer than Mercury does our sun. It is impossible for such a planet to form so close to its star, as the high temperatures would eliminate the rocks and ices before they could come together. Theorists quickly understood what had occurred early on in this system’s history: the planet probably formed further away from its star and subsequently migrated closer to it.
The picture, then, becomes clearer: Kepler-34(AB)b must have formed far from the two stars, in a more tranquil environment, and later migrated to its current location. Several computer models have shown this idea to be feasible, and compatible with our observations. The same models also help us understand why all the circumbinary planets found have been relatively small.
This had puzzled planetary scientists because normally the bigger a planet is, the easier it is to detect. But now we know that this isn’t the case: we would not observe such planets simply because they did not survive their turbulent beginnings. Simulations of planetary migration show that Jupiter-sized circumbinary planets end up strongly interacting with the gravitational field of the stars and are subsequently flung out from the system.
Although there are still many details to be worked out, this theoretical framework appears to be in step with Kepler’s discoveries so far. But yet-to-be-made planetary discoveries are bound to surprise us in the near future.
Stefano Meschiari does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.
The critics' verdicts on Philip Lymbery and Isabel Oakeshott, Sherill Tippins and Ray Jayawardhana.
Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat by Phillip Lymbery and Isabel Oakeshott
Farmageddon may at first appear to be another “enviro-shocker”: a bloody guilt trip, taking the reader from one gruesome factory to another, with little respite, but Philip Lymbery and Isabel Oakeshott have instead delivered a journey through a world of intensified farming, with plenty of possible solutions.
Farmageddon stands out from other books of its genre because it doesn’t rest heavily on visceral details from industrial farming and its impact on animals. Instead, according to Alex Renton of the Evening Standard, “Lymbery turns out to be a humanist animal-lover ... He lays out a sad and comprehensive case against modern, industrial farming but his argument is about much more than the welfare of animals and the difficult question of what moral duties we have to them. It is about whether the rich world’s lust for cheap meat is going to destroy the planet and starve us”. The book promises an insight into the impact of overconsumption of cheap foods by the rich, on the living standards of the poor, now and in the future.
However, Ross Clark of the Times claims that a consideration of the costs of a food revolution is precisely what is severely lacking in the book: “Much as Lymbery tries to convince us that Western consumers are enjoying their cheap meat on the backs of the world’s poor, there is much evidence to suggest that industrialised farming is helping to improve nutrition worldwide.”
A number of critics have highlighted Lymbery’s background as a campaigner and activist for Compassion in World Farming. The Guardian’s Tristam Stuart praises the authors for being pragmatic in their approach to the urgent problems in the food industry, resulting in a punchy, accessible book: “Lymbery brings to this essential subject the perspective of a seasoned campaigner – he is informed enough to be appalled, and moderate enough to persuade us to take responsibility for the system that feeds us.”
The Observer’s Lucy Seigle praises the book for its wider perspective, provided by Oakeshott, refining Lymbery’s arguments by challenging any prejudices about intensified meat production: “The overriding effect is the wholesale destruction of the myths that are used to sell intensive agriculture to populations around the world ... In fact, Farmageddon also lays out enough evidence to challenge complicity.”
Inside the Dream Palace: The Life and Times of New York's Legendary Chelsea Hotel by Sherill Tippins
At a crossroads for the future of New York City’s infamous Chelsea Hotel, Inside the Dream Palace is a poignant biography of a building and its ecosystem. The home for over a century of songwriting, drugtaking, sex, and suicide; the haven of artists of all kinds in need of space or inspiration has finally received an epitaph, before it is redeveloped for a new generation. The book, however, has received a mixture of criticism and, disappointingly for gossip-hungry readers, not for any slanderous accounts of the inhabitants.
Ada Calhoun of the New York Times writes about the lack of any new or revolutionary material; the book's want of scandalous and long-awaited anecdotes from the kind of exclusive interviews one would expect after years of research. However, the Independent’s Charlotte Raven relishes the biography’s inescapable sauciness: “Tippen tries to distinguish fact from fiction, but happily, her history still reads like a tall tale; as gossipy as any of the Chelsea denizens.”
Commended by Calhoun is Tippins's “measured tone” through the blaze of high-strung bohemia, with due respect for what she describes as Tippins's role as “a quiet authority [with] the soothing vibe of shepherd to an acid trip”. Yet Peter Conrad criticises her as “startlingly moralistic” for the very same reason, “given the funkiness of her subject”.
Despite questions about the author’s standpoint and “cool”, the book cannot be faulted for the interest it has provoked in the hotel’s future, and for those who are made to relive its past through precious anecdotes, for better or for worse.
Neutrino Hunters: The Thrilling Chase for a Ghostly Particle to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe by Ray Jayawardhana
“Whenever anything cool happens in the universe, neutrinos are usually involved.” The recent celebrity of an otherwise silent particle, the neutrino, has been warmly welcomed to the astrophysics stage after decades of scepticism.
Dubbed an “astrophysics detective thriller”, Jayawardhana tells the contentious tales of the discoveries surrounding neutrinos - elusive, tiny, human-neutral particles that have historically been blamed for or credited with the inexplicable - and what they implicate for the future of our understanding of the universe.
The book has been upheld by Robert McKie, writing in the Observer, as a clear and vibrant detangling of the hunt; its eccentric huntsmen leading the way. While most have praised this character-led history of the particle’s research, the Economist criticises the book for at times sounding “a little too much like a professional CV”, in contrast with its contemporary, The Perfect Wave by Heinrich Päs, which is richer in theory and scientific explanation.
According to the Boston Globe’s Jennifer Latson, the book’s strength lies in its “lively and endearingly nerdy” voice, coupled with an excitement for the future, as Jayawardhana details the next generation of investigation into many realms of physics, exploring the possibilities of tracking the particles and where they could lead us theoretically and commercially.
Since its launch at the end of 2013, the book has received much praise, with its entertaining storytelling by Jayawardhana - an award-winning science writer and celebrated researcher - applauded widely.
Some people see gender as a galaxy of possibilities. I experience it as a trap, a network of prejudices rooted in conservative notions of complementarity and evolutionary purpose.
Until my early twenties I was very, very thin. I didn’t have breasts or hips, and I didn’t menstruate. I liked myself that way and never wanted to change. My biggest fear was that one day, my body would rebel and I’d find myself walking the streets with bloodstains down the back of my skirt (I’d had two periods, aged ten, before starving my body back into submission). I developed a paranoid tic, constantly smoothing down my clothes and looking behind me to make sure I was bloodstain-free.
I’m not sure where the fear came from. I don’t know why that brief, early foray into puberty told me all I needed to know about how humiliating and intrusive owning a female body would be. I only know that later on, when I had to choose whether to eat or die, I was dismayed to find my anorexic self was right. I didn’t like the body that female adulthood gave me.
Breasts and bloodstains were an intrusion on my personhood. I felt diminished. I knew people – men in particular – looked at me differently. Without breasts, I could be pure thought; with them, I felt reduced to the passive bearer of womanhood and all the repressive values associated with it.
Perhaps I still feel this way, to a certain extent. I have enjoyed some aspects of having a female body – being pregnant felt empowering, suddenly putting all that wasted flesh to a purpose no one else could challenge. After pregnancy, however, I was desperate to shrink and stay shrunken. I am small and curvy and I long to be hard and compact.
Some people see gender as a galaxy of possibilities. I experience it as a trap, a network of prejudices rooted in conservative notions of complementarity and evolutionary purpose. I don’t believe my gender identity is female. I inhabit a female body, as opposed to a male or intersex one, and it does many of the things a female body is expected to do. My self – my identity – is something else. I possess some attributes considered typically female, others considered typically male. This does not make me special or unusual. I construct a reality in relation to my body – and the gender-based prejudices that come with having this body – as best I can. Isn’t that all any of us can do?
To break the stranglehold gender stereotypes have over human experience – distorting and restricting our experience of ourselves – should not involve telling whole swathes of humankind that they “match” their gender. Nonetheless, recently I’ve noticed certain right-on cis men have become terribly fond of saying this to cis women (and never without that slight “and now make me a sandwich” undertone). After all, what’s there to be afraid of? Matching cis maleness – the identity most closely associated with “being human” – must feel like winning the gender lottery. It’s not the same if you inhabit a female body. Who’d want the values associated with that? Yet that is what cis women are told they are stuck with. It is as though locating femaleness in one’s reproductive capacities is tantamount to assimilating femaleness as a gender construct. I don’t think this is fair. If there is no such thing as an essential gender binary, then there is nothing for a cis woman to match. The alternative – a trans or genderqueer identity – is another way of maintaining personhood in the face of a dehumanising social code. It should not become a means of reinforcing this code by exception.
The privileges enjoyed by cis people are vast and generally unacknowledged. Even so, cis privilege does not mean that for the vast majority of cis women embracing any form of gender identity is not a fraught, dehumanising experience. The relationship between our bodies, our assumed gender identity and what we know ourselves to be is difficult. No one should be judged on how they choose to negotiate it.
The idea that cis women implicitly identify with a female essence is little more than a rehash of patriarchal notions of “what women are”. It’s an acceptance that misogynists have been right all along; if you are born in a female body and accept the name “woman” then for you biology is destiny. You are not permitted the space to explore the relationship between perceptions of your body and an artificially gendered understanding of your mind. For you it is all or nothing. The very idea that the sexism you face is related to the body you inhabit is placed out of bounds.
This is especially problematic in relation to how we discuss reproductive freedom. Misogyny cannot be disentangled from a deep resentment of female reproduction (from a Judeo-Christian perspective what, after all, is Eve’s punishment?). The current drive towards de-gendering references to pregnancy and abortion thus strikes me as fundamentally anti-feminist. Anti-choicers do not seek to deny people abortions; they seek to deny women abortions. The needs of these women are dismissed not simply due to some abstract expectation of what people with wombs do, but due to an enormous matrix of highly gendered expectations. The gendering in this has to be acknowledged, otherwise how can it be challenged in any meaningful way? For the sake of both cis women and trans men it is important to identify the contested ground and to hone in on where the dehumanising impulses come from. This requires an understanding of intersectionality as contextualisation rather than a shifting of hierarchies, something which is essential if we are not to mask structures of oppression in a desperate attempt to be non-specific.
Right now I see a huge amount of tension between trans activists and radical feminists. Calling for a truce is, I suspect, futile. As ever, the noisiest people tend to be the most unwilling to listen. There are few things more narrow-minded and repressive than deeming cis women to be “a waste of pussy” or in thinking it constitutes activism to misgender and doxx a trans woman. I think the people doing this know it. I also think – but I don’t know if I can be sure – that both “sides” are fearful of acknowledging how close they are to one another in pinpointing how dishonest the whole notion of binary gender is. It should be okay to find different routes to self-realisation in a patriarchal, gender obsessed culture. Nonetheless, we feel there is not enough space. We are greedy for one another’s words, eager to be more “real” than the other person. That we are all authentic, and all of us finding ways of dealing with the not-realness of gender, is something that gets lost.
And yet our bodies are real. Our experiences and modifications of them – and the meanings these have in the culture around us – cannot be wished away. They can only be engaged with, openly and honestly. Only then can we give ourselves the space to grow into whatever people we want to be – rich, diverse, nurturing our bodies and allowing our imaginations to soar.
A Labour spokesman told me that “what is permanent is our commitment to fairness in taxation”.
For the first time since 1992, Labour will go into the next general election promising to raise the top rate of income tax. In the Blair era, as Stewart Wood, Ed Miliband’s intellectual consigliere, said at the Fabian Society conference on 25 January, such a pledge would have been “unthinkable”. But the prolonged aftermath of the financial crisis has created new political space for centre-left parties.
With austerity likely to continue for the whole of the next parliament, Labour can present a higher top rate as an essential part of a balanced deficit reduction plan. After the Conservatives attempted to broaden their appeal by declaring their support for an above-inflation increase in the minimum wage, the tax announcement has also allowed Labour to reframe them as the party of the rich. Not only do the Tories remain unrepentant about the decision to reduce the top rate from 50p to 45p, they refuse to rule out a further reduction to 40p in the next parliament.
One might imagine, after the neuralgic reaction of business leaders to Labour’s proposal, that a top rate of 50p would make the UK an economic pariah. But among OECD countries, it is far from exceptional. Denmark (60.2 per cent), Sweden (56.6 per cent) and Belgium (53.7 per cent), hardly socialist backwaters, all have higher top rates. And Spain, the Netherlands, France (which will soon introduce a 75 per cent rate) and Austria have rates of 50 per cent or above.
Company heads warn that a higher top rate would deter investors from choosing the UK, yet it is notable that not one major business relocated while the 50p rate was in place from 2010-2013. Nor did outraged celebrities such as Tracey Emin and Michael Caine make good on their vow to flee the country.
The pragmatic objection to the 50p rate is that it would raise little or no revenue because it would trigger mass avoidance. But Labour contends that this is an argument for reducing avoidance, not for cutting tax. A source told me that the party would have “more to say” on this subject over the next few months.
The biggest question facing Labour is whether the new rate would be a temporary measure to assist deficit reduction or a permanent one to redistribute income. In interviews following the announcement of the policy, the shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, emphasised that the 50p rate would remain in place only “while we get the deficit down”. Balls, who is more conscious than some in the party of the need to avoid appearing anti-business, also said he was in favour of “lower tax rates”. But in June 2010, when he was running for the Labour leadership, Ed Miliband said: “I would keep the 50p rate permanently. It’s not just about reducing the deficit, it’s about fairness in our society.”
A Labour spokesman told me that “what is permanent is our commitment to fairness in taxation”, and that “the 50p rate is specifically tied to deficit reduction”.
But it is salutary to remember Milton Friedman’s dictum: “Nothing is so permanent as a temporary government programme.” Income tax was introduced in 1799 as a short-term measure to help fund the fight against Napoleon. Two hundred and fifteen years later, it is still with us.
Unless there is investment to help schools build nursery classrooms, this announcement is meaningless for parents.
Yesterday I gave a speech in front of 400 early years providers and professionals. Their dedication and commitment to supporting parents and children shone through their questions and comments. However, so did their concern for the families faced with difficult decisions over childcare, as a result of David Cameron’s childcare crunch.
Under this government, families facing a cost-of-living crisis are being hit with a triple whammy in childcare. Early years places have fallen by 35,000 and childcare costs are soaring, up 30 per cent since 2010. Nursery costs have risen five times faster than wages and the government has cut the amount of help families receive through tax credits, making it harder to make ends meet.
This week's headline grabbing announcement from the government shows us that they think telling schools to take two-year-olds is the answer to the problems they have created in childcare. But this announcement is complete pie in the sky that will do little to help families struggling with childcare, and will put further pressure on our primary schools. The reality is that David Cameron has already created a primary school places crisis, with 240,000 places needed by this September. Many of our best primary schools are already oversubscribed and schools are struggling to take on extra reception classes, let alone two-year-olds.
Whilst Labour believes that schools can play an important role in caring for pre-school children, it is pie in the sky from ministers to suggest that schools taking on more two-year-olds will be cost neutral. Unless there is capital investment to help schools build nursery classrooms, this announcement is meaningless for parents. It is nothing but further proof that David Cameron has no plan to tackle the rising childcare costs and fewer places that parents are facing under his government.
The government is already failing to provide enough places for the 20 per cent most disadvantaged two-year-olds, with 38,000 missing out on the places they were promised. We know from Freedom of Information requests that one in three councils do not have enough places for two-year-olds now and this is set to get worse when the scheme is expanded next September. Alongside the lack of availability, the government is doing nothing to drive up the quality of childcare places in this scheme, with the Sutton Trust calling on the government to delay the roll-out to ensure more quality places be found.
There are other questions too about what a classroom for two-year-olds would look like and whether parents want this kind of provision for their children. We already know that two-year-olds need specialist care and support which is very different from older children, and this raises concerns about the quality of care for two-year-olds. Minister Liz Truss has long been an exponent of loosening the childcare ratios for young children and increasing the number of children childminders and nursery workers can look after. This flies in the face of advice from experts, who say this would risk child safety, damage the quality of care and would not bring down costs for parents.
For the government to now try and push its own failings with childcare onto the shoulders of already pressured primary schools is both irresponsible and unworkable. Labour would tackle the problems with childcare that parents are facing, extending the provision of free childcare for working parents of three and four-year-olds from 15 to 25 hours and introducing a primary childcare guarantee to help parents manage before and after-school childcare. Whilst David Cameron and Liz Truss might see primary schools taking two-year-olds as the silver bullet after their failure to loosen the childcare ratios, back in the real world, this announcement will do little to help the hardworking parents who are struggling day-to-day with the difficult choices they have to make on childcare and the strain that this government has put on family life.
Lucy Powell MP is the shadow minister for childcare and children
We won’t stand aside as this violence is inflicted on girls in the UK and around the world. Britain is now the world’s biggest supporter of activity to end female genital mutilation.
Around the world, girls and women are being cut. Most of them will still be under 15 when they have their genitalia partially or totally removed. Some are still babies. Many will go on to suffer a lifetime of health problems, infertility, problems urinating and complications in childbirth, as well as the weight of deep psychological scars. For some girls it is a death sentence.
Let’s be absolutely clear – Female Genital Mutilation is child abuse and an extreme form of gender violence. But for too long the world hasn’t wanted to talk about a harmful practice that is a centuries-old part of life for many communities. Too little was invested in ending FGM; too little money, too little research, too little attention.
It’s time we broke the silence. Today is the International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation, and along with campaigners across Africa and the UK I am calling on the international community to raise their voices, back the African-led anti-FGM movement to end FGM within a generation.
There are at least 125 million women worldwide who have been subject to FGM. In countries like Egypt and Somalia, more than 90 per cent of girls and women have been cut. Here in the UK thousands of girls face being sent abroad in the “cutting season” of the long summer holiday.
We won’t stand aside as this violence is inflicted on girls in the UK and around the world. That is why Britain is now the world’s biggest supporter of activity to end FGM. Last year I launched a £35m programme that aims to reduce FGM by 30 per cent over five years in at least 10 countries.
We know that thousands of communities across Africa are deciding to end the practice. This is being supported by real African commitment. Last week I was in Ziniaré, a village in Burkina Faso that has abandoned female genital mutilation. During my visit I went to the Suka clinic for FGM survivors, set up by Burkina Faso’s remarkable First Lady Chantal Compaoré. They showed me horrifying, harrowing videos and photographs of the damage that FGM does to millions of girls and women.
Lynne Featherstone in Burkina Faso. Photo: Jessica Lea/DFID
But I also saw hope being restored by the dedicated staff who provide reconstructive surgery to dozens of Burkinabé women every week. This allows these women to have sex, give birth safely, and avoid a multitude of other health problems. All this costs just 6,000 Central African Francs, or $15, but changes lives beyond measure.
Importantly, attitudes are also changing in Burkina Faso. I visited a school, where I saw a class of 15 and 16 year-olds – both boys and girls – engage in a lively debate about the dangers of FGM and design slogans to tackle the practice. I met police officers who are passionate about investigating and prosecuting potential and actual cases. I joined in a local radio show in which a woman who hadn’t even known that her body was different to those of other women called in to seek help for the first time in her life.
Although 76 per cent of girls and women between the ages of 15 and 49 have undergone FGM in Burkina Faso, the prevalence among girls aged 15 to 19 has dropped by 31 per cent. That is an impressive shift, but there’s a long way to go. Across Africa 30 million girls are at risk of being cut over the next decade.
That’s why the UK Government has announced a range of measures today to end FGM both in Britain and around the world. For the first time ever, all NHS acute hospitals will have to record information on patients who have suffered or are at risk of suffering FGM. A new FGM Community Engagement Initiative is also being launched by the Home Office today.
But we will not see an end to FGM here unless the practice is eliminated worldwide. That is why the Government has today appointed a consortium of leading anti-FGM campaigners to deliver a global campaign to end FGM. This campaign will unite activists across Africa with UK diaspora communities and charities, raising awareness of the fact that FGM is ending, that change is happening and communities are part of the movement against it.
Sometimes people see for themselves the terrible harm FGM can do. In Ziniaré I met Naba Siguiri, a customary chief who lost his 5 year-old daughter while she went through FGM. Siguiri became one of the loudest voices against FGM in his village, which has now ended the practice.
But where people don’t have a personal experience of the damage FGM can do, then other methods are needed to shift people’s opinions. That is why we need a grassroots movement across Africa to change attitudes and help communities become part of the global movement to end FGM in a generation.
If everyone: governments, NGOs, teachers, health professionals, police, religious leaders, communities themselves and even those who perform the practice work together, then we can end FGM within a generation and give millions more girls and women the chance of a healthy and productive life. We cannot end FGM in the UK without ending it in Africa - the two are inextricably linked – which is why we will not rest until FGM follows foot-binding into the history books.
Lynne Featherstone is the Lib Dem MP for Hornsey & Wood Green and a Minister at the Department for International Development
How would you react if you discovered your music was being used to aid interrogations?
How would you react if you discovered your music was being used as an instrument of torture? I like to think that if, in some mad parallel universe, my cat-wail of a singing voice was being piped into prison cells to torment detainees, I’d have the same reaction as the Canadian industrial rock band, Skinny Puppy.
According to CTV News, Skinny Puppy learned that its music was being played to prisoners at Guantanamo Bay during interrogations to “inflict damage”. Understandably, the band was “offended” when a fan, who happened to be a guard at Gitmo, told them this was happening. “Because we make unsettling music, we can see it being used in a weird way. But it doesn’t sit right with us," the band’s keyboardist Cevin Key told the Phoenix New Times.
But then, Key hatched a plan. Initially they intended to design an album cover with an invoice to the US government, but then they discovered they could sue the Defence Department for using their music without their permission. Skinny Puppy says it has now invoiced for $666,000 in compensation, although the BBC reports that a US military spokesperson said no invoice had been received. Skinny Puppy says if it receives no response, it says it will consider suing.
Hats off to them (if it’s true) – it’s certainly a bolder move than that of Metallica, who simply asked the US military if they could refrain from using their music during interrogations in Iraq.
And if you want to hear some of the band whose music is allegedly being used to extract information from Guantanamo Bay prisoners, here's a treat for you:
A study in Colorado has found that as the number and nearness of wells to a pregnant woman’s home went up, so did the likelihood that her baby would develop a heart problem.
In his recent State of the Union address, President Barack Obama praised natural gas as “the bridge fuel that can power our economy with less of the carbon pollution that causes climate change” and vowed to “cut red tape” to help business invest in it. But two studies released this winter bolster long-held fears that the extraction process, hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, presents serious dangers for human health – and in particular, the health of the unborn.
One of the studies was conducted in Colorado, where some cities have sought a moratorium on fracking and industry has pushed back, by public health scientists from the Colorado School of Public Health and Brown University. The central finding is a strong correlation between proximity to fracking wells and congenital heart defects. As the number and nearness of wells to a pregnant woman’s home went up, so did the likelihood that her baby would develop a heart problem. Strikingly, “Births to mothers in the most exposed tertile [an exposure level equal to 125 wells within mile of the home] had a 30 per cent greater prevalence of CHDs [congenital heart defects]…than births to mothers with no wells within a 10-mile radius of their residence.”
The authors also saw some evidence that fracking wells upped the incidence of neurological defects, though only at high levels of exposure. They looked for a correlation with oral clefts, low birth weight, and premature birth, but did not find that fracking made them more likely.
A study in Pennsylvania, another state rich in natural gas, had different but worrisome findings. (Authored by researchers from Princeton, Columbia, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, it is not yet peer-reviewed or publicly available but was presented in January.) As Mark Whitehouse of Bloomberg Viewwrote last month, “They found that proximity to fracking increased the likelihood of low birth weight by more than half, from about 5.6 per cent to more than 9 per cent. The chances of a low Apgar score, a summary measure of the health of newborn children, roughly doubled, to more than 5 per cent.”
Although fracking has frequently been linked to water contamination, Whitehouse notes that drinking chemicals does not seem to pose the greatest risk during pregnancy. “The researchers found similar results for mothers who had access to regularly monitored public water systems and mothers who relied on the kind of private wells that fracking is most likely to affect,” he writes. “Another possibility is that infants are being harmed by air pollution associated with fracking activity.” Miriam Rotkin-Ellman, a public health scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, points out that prior studies have linked the ambient presence of chemicals released during natural gas extraction, such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and benzene, to birth defects.
Colorado’s pro-fracking administration and industry groups have already rejected the critical study – as conservative outlets like The Daily Caller were quick to point out. Larry Wolk, executive director and chief medical officer of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, discounted the findings because “many factors known to contribute to birth defects were ignored” – even though the authors acknowledged alcohol use, smoking, and myriad other potential “covariates”.
“I would tell pregnant women and mothers who live, or who at-the-time-of-their-pregnancy lived, in proximity to a gas well not to rely on this study as an explanation of why one of their children might have had a birth defect,” Wolk huffed. But as studies like these continue to emerge, their warnings will be increasingly difficult to ignore.
Leading educationalists respond to the question of public schools.
In a wide-ranging essay in last week’s New Statesman, David Kynaston and George Kynaston challenged policymakers (especially on the left) to address the dominance of the private school minority in public life. This week, leading educationalists reply to the essay and offer their own solutions to what we are calling the “7 per cent problem”
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Open up the private schools to the poor
David and George Kynaston have written one of the most thoughtful recent contributions about private schools. Their question, why has the left not done more to address the private school problem, is more pertinent than ever. Labour’s private school prime ministers, Clement Attlee and Tony Blair, proved far more successful electorally, winning five general elections and losing only one, than its state school premiers. Many of Labour’s towering figures have indeed been public school products, as have many of its private donors and most influential supporters. The party has rattled sabres in opposition, but once in power it has been uncomfortable doing anything to challenge the entrenched position of private schools. It has equally been as silent on another topic not mentioned in the Kynastons’ article, the stranglehold that the better-off have over top state schools.
It is not only Labour that has been silent. The Conservative Party, guided for nearly 40 years after 1965 by leaders who had attended state schools – Edward Heath, Margaret Thatcher and John Major – and committed to equality of opportunity and a competitive economy, has been equally coy about private schools.
Private schools, for much of the past hundred years, and especially when the economy has been adverse, have had difficult periods. But since the 1980s they have forged ahead, in confidence and academic success. However much the state sector improved, and it has done so markedly in the past 15 years, the private sector has achieved still more. True, private schools in the north of the country and in rural areas have found it hard, but parents are still managing to find the fees. It has been a continuing misconception of the left that the private schools are full of rich children, sent by snobby parents who don’t want them to mix with those from ordinary backgrounds. Part of the left’s problem is its failure to understand the schools and their parents.
The myopia of the left about private schools does not stop there. It has taken as a given that parents of children in private schools should pay twice, through taxes and school fees, while refusing even to countenance the possibility of affluent parents contributing to fees at top state schools. The left has proved equally out of touch in imagining that private school heads could not have any non-cynical reason for wanting to partner with state schools. It was risible hearing for years that the only reason why they wanted to do so, at heavy cost to the schools, was a cowardly wish to avoid losing their charitable status. Yet, since 2011, when the threat to the charitable status of private schools was lifted, charitable activity partnering state schools has increased. Many of the best-known critics of private schools on the left have never visited them. Those who have, like Melissa Benn, are often pleasantly surprised, even if it doesn’t change their outlook.
A January report from the Institute of Education argues that English education is among the most class-ridden in the developed world. It blames decades of inequality on the gap between the best schools and the worst. The problem of stagnating social mobility is worsening and we have no time to lose. To me, after a lifetime writing about education and working in schools, it has become clear that neither the Conservatives nor Labour alone will be able to produce the policies we need to give an excellent education to all, regardless of background.
Only a cross-party commission will be able to make the breakthrough that Britain so badly needs, as I argued in a report for the Social Market Foundation, Schools United, published last month. My particular focus is the bottom quartile. If we can advance their opportunities for education, we will transform the entire landscape. Only brave and radical change will solve the deep-seated problems we have. I thus propose that a quarter of places at private schools in Britain (as well as a quarter in the top-performing state schools) be reserved for bottom-quartile children. Places at top state schools could also be means-tested so that those who can afford to pay do so, which would bring much-needed money into the state system while guaranteeing that the principle of free state education for all stays untouched, because spaces at middle- and low-performing state schools would remain free even for the most wealthy. The affluent would either pay for the top places, or move to the less popular schools, where their muscle would drive up standards. True, some might switch to private schools; but as premium house prices in the catchment areas of top state schools often far outstrip private-sector fees, as the Reform Scotland think tank argued at the end of January, is that necessarily so unjust?
My own report proposes a series of further moves to build a more united school system, and hence a more united country. They include the cause I have long championed – all private schools should start named academies, and work with a proven academy provider or a successful state school to provide the necessary expertise. All state school pupils should have access to the breadth of educational experience and the preparation for careers that their counterparts at private schools enjoy. The left, sadly, has poured scorn on these ideas, preferring to cling to proposals that simply will not happen, such as the abolition of the private sector.
The left, as well as the right and centre, must be silent no longer: they must join forces along the lines I have suggested. Fail to do so, and in the next hundred years Britain will become even more polarised and fragmented.
Anthony Seldon is the Master of Wellington College and executive principal of the Wellington Academy
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Academies can make the difference
David and George Kynaston describe brilliantly the reasons we are where we are. But what is to be done? The imperative is for a bold and credible reform that has a realistic prospect of achieving system-wide transformation, rather than piecemeal initiatives or utopian gestures that signify nothing. Systematically engaging good private schools with the academies programme is the policy to make a real difference. Good progress has been made since the launch of academies 14 years ago. It needs to be continued resolutely; if that happens, the sum will increasingly amount to more than the parts.
There are two options for successful private schools within the academies programme, and both involve a fundamental change to the institutional character of private schools, making them in effect state-private hybrids. First, good private schools, too, can become academies – or “free schools”, in the Gove lexicon, which legally are the same as academies. This reincarnates them as state-funded but independently managed schools, sustaining their ethos, character and standards while accepting pupils without fees on the basis of fair admissions (in other words, no eleven-plus selection).
So far, more than a dozen leading independent schools have taken this course, and the number increases by a few each year. The biggest coup is Liverpool College, one of the founding members of the Headmasters’ Conference in 1869, which last year became an academy and opened its educational excellence, facilities and 28 acres to Liverpool children without fees. It promptly received 600 applications for its year 7 places. As part of its transition to being an academy, it is increasing its total places from 730 to 1,150, and will continue to run a boarding house.
Hans van Mourik Broekman, headmaster of Liverpool College, is frank about the combination of altruism and self-interest which motivated the decision to become an academy. The affluent middle class is increasingly thin on the ground in Merseyside. Liverpool College could have continued in the fee-paying sector, small and select, but academy status is enabling it to become large and open, true to the progressive social mission that animated its foundation by Gladstone and the Liverpool merchants a century and a half ago. A Dutchman who exudes in equal measure educational professionalism and mystification about the English class system, Broekman was well placed to make the change.
Like Liverpool College, the other private schools that have become academies are all of high quality and great popularity in their localities. Mostly in the less affluent north of England, they include Birkenhead High School, the Belvedere School in Liverpool, William Hulme’s Grammar School in Manchester and the King’s School Tynemouth. The first two of these are run by the Girls’ Day School Trust, which operates a historic national chain of highly successful private schools for girls, several more of which are ripe for conversion to academies to fulfil their original social mission.
Not all the “converters” are in the north: there are two in affluent Bristol – Bristol Cathedral Choir School and Colston’s Girls’ School. As the success of Liverpool College and the other converters becomes well established, the altruism/self-interest dynamic could easily yield another 50 or 100 nationwide within a decade, forming a substantial new private/state sector.
The second option is for successful private schools – or the foundations behind them – to sponsor academies or free schools, taking responsibility for the governance and management of a school or schools in the state-funded sector as well as their existing school or schools in the fee-paying sector.
There are now several dozen of these “new” independent school academies. Here, too, the past year has brought a significant breakthrough. Eton and Westminster, the two most prestigious private schools, have become academy sponsors, taking sole or joint responsibility for the management of their new state-funded institutions.
Eton is the sole sponsor of Holyport College, a free school opening near Maidenhead this September for 500 pupils. It will be half boarding and half day, leveraging Eton’s boarding expertise, facilities and curriculum. Eton’s governors will henceforth be responsible for two institutions: one private-funded, one state-funded; one (essentially) for the super-rich, the other (essentially) for local families and those with boarding need, both with Eton’s reputation attached.
Westminster School is also opening a free school in September – in the shape of a sixth-form college for 500 16-to-18-year-olds with top GCSE grades who have the potential for entry to leading universities. The Harris-Westminster Sixth Form is being established and managed in partnership with the Harris Federation – one of the most successful academy chains, sponsored by the carpet magnate and philanthropist Lord Harris of Peckham. The initial places are far oversubscribed. Outreach to poorer communities is a central part of the mission: 70 per cent of the applicants are eligible for the pupil premium, and one in five is a pupil at one of the 27 existing Harris academies, all of which are in deprived parts of the south-east (mostly south London).
Here again, the change for the sponsoring private school is profound. Westminster School is located in the precincts of Westminster Abbey, harking back to its original charitable mission, and the chair of the school’s governors is always the Dean of Westminster, one of the most senior clerics in the Church of England. John Hall, the current dean, is conscious that the Church’s social mission sits uneasily with England’s foremost cathedral being physically and institutionally conjoined to one of the world’s most exclusive private schools, with fees of £33,000 a year. The Harris-Westminster Sixth Form academy will also conjoin it to a state-funded school for the less affluent.
Academy by academy, year by year, the private-state divide in education is being overcome. There is far, far further to go. But we have made a start.
Andrew Adonis, minister for schools under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, is the author of “Education, Education, Education: Reforming England’s Schools” (Biteback, £12.99)
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Follow the Indian model
Reading the Kynastons’ essay, one almost gives in to sympathy for the Labour Party. How difficult it must be to overthrow the private schools when so many politicians (and their children) have benefited from their hallowed halls. How tragic it would be to yank away the right of individuals to pay for tennis courts and Latin lessons. Your heart bleeds less, however, when you realise that India, a nation with a caste system, now requires all of its private schools to ensure that 25 per cent of their intake comes from the poorest children in a given area. And don’t think that they can pick out their favourites. The places are won by open, random lottery. Any child from a low-income family can enter; if he wins he must be admitted and taught. As far as India is concerned, if you want to be a private provider, you better be ready to take those most in need alongside those who can pay.
Much as the Labour Party has had to face continuous wailing over the private schools issue, India’s revolution was not quiet. Due to be introduced in 2006, the law was passed only in 2009, after agreement on the 25 per cent figure (a reduction from the 50 per cent initially posited). Predictably, wealthy parents complained. The irony of allowing lower-caste women to serve as their nannies while arguing that the children of these same women were unworthy to rub shoulders with their own children was lost amid complaints about “different sorts” of child.
The private schools also complained. Although the government reimburses every school for each poorer child it admits, it does so only at the same rate as any state school would receive for the child. With the extra cash for these children gone, the schools were concerned about the upkeep for their fancy facilities. Faced with being judged solely on their teaching – rather than their sports facilities and music rooms – many gurned. One can only imagine the long faces in England if we did likewise.
Nevertheless, India’s government persevered. It has sent watchdogs to tackle lottery rigging and the systematic mistreatment of students. Examples include poorer students being seated at the back of the classroom, or siphoned into separate classes altogether.
So, compare India’s bravery to the compromises offered, in the Kynastons’ article, by Peter Lampl of the Sutton Trust. It describes the generous-sounding proposal that private schools “open up” one-third of their places – just as long as they are funded by the government.
But read the original report and note the actual, complete proposal. It reads: “Open Access is a voluntary scheme that would open the best independent day schools to talented children from all backgrounds.” Did you spot the keyword? Private schools would open to “talented” children. But, one should ask, why? Why should private schools – with their extra cash and bundles of social capital – skim off only the most “talented” children?
And this is where a lie is made of the suggestion in the Kynastons’ essay that private schools are somehow of “intrinsic merit”. See, if private schools really are imbued with magic sauce why must they take in only the talented? Why not, instead, select 25 per cent randomly from among the ranks of the poor? (Assuming, of course, that they would wish to go.) Only it seems to me that the “inventory of privileged access” that the Kynastons say is bestowed on private schoolers can’t be attributed to intrinsic merit at all. It is merely down to a calculated selection of children. I wonder whether the private schools fear that if selection stopped, their not-so-greatness might be exposed after all.
Perhaps I am being harsh. Let us accept for a moment the idea that most private schools are superb and confer the best-quality teaching going (and, to be fair, this is true for some). Given such skills, why limit access solely to the talented? The poor-yet-dim child is surely at least as deserving of a great education as the poor-but-bright. In fact, given that a child who is both poor and struggling with school runs a greater risk of becoming unemployed, ill or homeless in the future, might it not even be prudent for him or her to be given such an excellent education?
The Kynastons provide us with a second option: Andrew Adonis’s idea of coaxing private schools into the state sector through the academies and free schools programme. (Rab Butler suggested a similar idea during the drafting of the Education Act 1944 but he was overruled by Churchill.) That only six schools so far have gone down this route suggests the policy is far from being a tide change. Oddly, though, the slow pace does not result from reluctance on the part of private schools. In the first year of the government’s free schools programme, 103 independent schools applied to convert to state-funded academies. However, only five were accepted. And of those five, three were labelled as “requiring improvement” at their first Ofsted inspection. Not the greatest sign that private schools are the answer to perceived state school problems.
Ultimately, the most important question is one posed by the authors: are private schools educating the wrong children? I’m not convinced by “wrong”; but they certainly aren’t helping. If Labour hasn’t the guts to get rid of the private schools it should at least ensure that their charitable status becomes dependent on them saving 25 per cent of places for children drawn at random from among groups with the most need – either those on a low income or those of low ability. Doing so will solve one of the main dilemmas outlined in the piece. It would allow the wealthy to exercise their right to buy a private education but stop them from any longer buying an “exclusive” one. Let us never forget that distinction.
Laura McInerney was a teacher in London and is now a Fulbright scholar studying education policy
The landscape is changing for the better
We are where we are. David and George Kynaston are right to draw attention to the failure of the Fleming report and the half-heartedness of subsequent attempts to address the gap between independent and state schools. But we are where we are because successive broad-brush attempts to realign systems have not been able to accommodate the spirit of independence. We conceive of ourselves as a free country and parents must have the fundamental right to choose how to educate their children.
If independent schools were marginal or feeble, they would, I suspect, pass unremarked. They are popular because they are, in the main, very good schools, not just in terms of academic results but because they celebrate true breadth in education. Indeed, there is a strong argument that independent schools have been able to sustain their vision of holistic education precisely because they are one step away from the fickleness of government policy.
As the Kynastons observe, “Education is not just another item or service to be bought or sold.” The best independent schools thrive because they embody deeply held beliefs about the value of education.
In Shanghai recently, I was in conversation with heads of top-performing schools in one of the highest-performing regions in the world. These are the Olympic medallists of contemporary measurement culture. Yet all, they said, was not right. They realise that the driven approach to exam success was not equipping their students effectively to be citizens in an interconnected world. And to whom do they look for some inspiration? British independent schools.
The best British independents are world-class. We would be foolish to undermine them. The question is how best to use what they have to offer.
For decades, independent schools have turned in on themselves, in part through a comfortable insularity, but largely as a consequence of the hostility they have received. When I started as the head of an independent school 25 years ago, it was made very clear to me by the local state school that there would be no contact of any kind between us. Often, when attempts have been made to bring schools together, they have been ham-fisted, built on the assumption that there is one definitive model that can be readily transplanted. Mistrust and resentment have followed. In recent times, the drive to push independent schools to sponsor an academy as the route to preserving charitable status was misguided. Most independent schools readily acknowledge that they do not have the expertise to tackle the particular issues faced, for example, by an inner-city comprehensive and shy away from patronising intervention.
Yet, if independent schools see themselves as part of our national provision, they must take the initiative and seek to be better connected, not as a reaction to political pressure, but as a moral imperative. Independent schools that are expansive create a richer culture for their own people as well as opportunities for others.
One way to create that richer culture is by making independent schools as open and accessible as possible. Schools should state their intent by publishing targets for increasing means-tested bursaries. At Eton at present, 263 boys receive means-tested financial assistance averaging 60 per cent remission of the fee, with 63 paying nothing at all. The short-term target is to raise that number to 320 with 70 on full remission – and then move on to the next target, with the ultimate goal of being, in the American phrase, “needs-blind”: in a position to take all suitable candidates irrespective of their family’s financial situation.
But above all, independent schools should find practical ways to work alongside fellow professionals in the state sector. They can play to their strengths. In Eton’s case, experience with academic high achievers in the sixth form led us to join a consortium of independent schools supporting the London Academy of Excellence, an academically selective, state-funded sixth-form-entry school in east London. Our belief in the transformative power of good boarding education has led us to be the educational sponsor of Holyport College, a new state boarding school. Relationships with local state school heads, developed over years, have led to the creation of an independent state schools partnership and support for a multi-academy trust.
The key to all such engagements is identifying practical outcomes – what works well. Relationships flourish when there are seen to be reciprocal benefits. In all the projects we undertake, our teachers and students have something to learn and something to give. Their understanding and skills are enhanced as much as those in the partner state school, if perhaps in different ways. Real school partnership is short on rhetoric, long on pragmatism.
The landscape is changing for the better, as witnessed by the quality and frequency of conversation between heads of state and independent schools who recognise they share a common purpose and simply wish to do the best for their young people. This is a meeting of minds that was rare a quarter of a century ago.
By their nature, independent schools exercise their independence. Some are wholeheartedly engaged in seeking to embrace a bigger vision of their purpose: others are not. The Kynastons describe a clarion call. All independent schools should wish to respond to it.
Tony Little is the headmaster of Eton
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How to reduce class bias
Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett
There is a tendency to regard disparities in education, income, status and power as equally important forms of inequality. But in trying to understand human social hierarchy or, for that matter, animal pecking orders or ranking systems, one must take into account that they are all primarily about access to scarce resources. Parents send their children to private schools to give them a better chance of securing the best-paid jobs. Wanting your children to speak “nicely” and to have the manner and confidence – or sense of entitlement – that go with private education are simply means to that end.
We won’t know precisely how much private education contributes to the upper-class domination of politics, business, the judiciary, the media, medicine and so on, until we have managed to get rid of it and can see how much of the problem remains. We believe private education has very powerful effects, but even without it upper-class parents would still manage to pass on a large measure of privilege to their children.
The difficulty in abolishing private education springs directly from the way the establishment is dominated by its products. Abolition would provoke unified howls of abuse and ridicule from every powerful quarter which no government could withstand, unless it had the strongest backing from public opinion.
Our solution would be to implement policies that raise the price and weaken the value of private education as a means of gaining access to top jobs, so making abolition politically more feasible.
First, the data shows that societies with smaller income differences between rich and poor have higher social mobility. They also have higher overall standards and smaller differences up and down the social ladder. In measures of cognitive development among five-year-olds, in maths and literacy scores among older children, and in measures of child well-being, more equal societies achieve higher standards.
All the ways in which class and status imprint themselves on us throughout life are strengthened by bigger income differences. Because bigger material differences create bigger social distance, you cannot create a classless society without vastly reducing inequalities of income and wealth.
Policies to reduce income differences are therefore an essential part of any strategy to level the playing field from the earliest ages. That is not simply a matter of redistribution and the prevention of tax avoidance. It is also a matter of reducing differences in pre-tax incomes by supporting all forms of economic democracy, from legal provision for employee representatives on company boards to the expansion of employee ownership and producer co-operatives.
Second, we would also weaken the private school advantage in university entry, particularly to the better universities. This could be done partly by requiring that universities randomly allocate places to the highest-ranked applicants from each school. So pupils in the top 10 or 20 per cent coming from schools in the poorest areas would have the same chances as pupils in the top 10 or 20 per cent from Eton. Evidence shows that students from state schools do better at university than privately educated students with the same A-level grades, so this may raise rather than lower educational standards. This could be introduced to cover a low percentage from each school and then raised gradually. Each university would allocate places randomly among pupils who were among the best from each school applying to that university. There are several international examples of successful schemes similar to this.
To reduce further the class bias in entry to the professions and in job selection procedures, professional associations should be charged with the duty of monitoring progress and taking action against offending institutions.
As well as reducing the class bias in access to top jobs which private education perpetuates, measures should be taken to raise the cost of attending a private school. That would at least reduce the proportion of the population that felt it had a vested interest in protecting it. Private education’s charitable status should be withdrawn, and it should be taxed to pay for the external social costs that the perpetuation of injustice imposes on the rest of society. Policies of this kind would gradually change the class nature of our society and weaken the support for private education to a point where its complete abolition would become feasible.
Another reason why enormous inequality has survived in our society is that the public is unaware of its extent. To overcome this, the Equality Trust has developed a resource with information on the extent and effects of economic inequality in the UK.
Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett are the authors of “The Spirit Level: Why Equality Is Better for Everyone” (Penguin, £10.99)
What does Labour think?
The shadow education secretary declined to comment on last week’s NS cover story or to write a reply.
Any relocation would be largely symbolic but the Scottish economy desperately needs to be rebalanced.
Vince Cable became the latest UK government minister to warn (or imply, at any rate) that the financial crisis would have sunk an independent Scotland when he gave evidence to the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee at Westminster yesterday. In response to a question from Labour’s William Bain about the consequences of removing the Bank of England as lender of last resort to the Royal Bank of Scotland, Cable said: "I think if you were managing RBS you would almost certainly want to be in a domicile where your bank is protected against the risk of collapse. I think they already have a substantial amount of their management in London and I would have thought that, inevitably, they would become a London bank, which would be symbolically quite important."
You can see the Business Secretary’s point. RBS, which is headquartered at Gogarburn, just outside Edinburgh, has a balance sheet roughly ten times the size of Scotland’s entire economic output. Had Scotland been independent in 2008, when the bank imploded under the weight of its own reckless lending and acquisition practices, the Scottish Treasury would have gone bust trying to keep it afloat and the Scots, like the Irish, been forced to seek a hefty EU/IMF rescue package.
But the problem with Cable’s argument – an argument which has featured heavily in unionist rhetoric over the last five or six years – is that RBS is a British bank, not an exclusively Scottish one. At the time of the crash, RBS had more customers and employees in the rest of the United Kingdom than it did in Scotland, as well as a majority of its capital assets in the City of London. Today, as it edges back into private ownership, it still has 24 million customers across the UK and, as Cable acknowledges, "substantial" management in the British capital.
On what grounds, then, would the rest of the UK have insisted that Scotland take responsibility for the full cost of the £45bn RBS bail-out? Moreover, what obligation would an independent Scotland have had – or currently have – to guarantee the deposits of RBS customers south of the border? That was – and would remain were Scotland to leave the UK – the role of the British government.
Cable’s position is further undermined by experiences elsewhere. Not long after the near collapse of Britain’s financial sector, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg joined forces to salvage Fortis, a major European bank. Bail-out costs were divided according to the proportion of Fortis’s operations in each of those countries. National boundaries, it seems, matter little to financial institutions capable of straddling continents.
Yet Cable has, however unwittingly, raised one interesting question. To what extent would Scotland suffer if RBS did move its headquarters from Edinburgh to London after independence? RBS employs about 12,000 people in Scotland, while the financial sector as a whole employs roughly 85,000 people and accounts for between 7 or 8 per cent of Scottish GDP. Only a small number of these jobs – most likely those at Gogarburn – would be at risk were RBS to relocate down south. It’s difficult to imagine what reasons the bank would have to further reduce its Scottish operations. Indeed, Cable himself concedes any such relocation would be little more than "symbolic".
And what would that symbolism amount to? Finance capitalism, particularly of the sort practiced by RBS in recent years, is predatory, monopolistic and crisis-prone. It’s hardly a coincidence that those countries, such as the UK, Ireland and the US, which allowed their economies to become heavily leveraged on financial services in the run-up to 2008 also suffered the longest and most severe post-crash downturns in the developed world.
The Scottish economy desperately needs to be rebalanced. It currently exports more in financial goods and services than it does in manufacturing (the underlying weakness of its trade balance is disguised by strong oil and whisky exports). Were its banks to run into more trouble, it would lack a robust manufacturing base to fall back on. RBS won’t flee an independent Scotland. But if it did, the long term effects would probably be beneficial.
The Navier-Stokes equations, which describe how fluids such as air and water flow, may finally have been proved to work in every situation.
Here’s a little-known fact: to get a PhD in maths from Harvard, you need to be a language buff. The university points out that “almost all important work” is published in French, German, English or Russian, and so “every student is advised to acquire an ability to read mathematics in French, German and Russian”. This makes it sound optional, but if you want the PhD you have to pass a two-hour written exam in two of these three languages.
Even so, we now have a mathematical pile-up at the language barrier. The Kazakh mathematician Mukhtarbay Otelbayev says he has solved a problem that has stumped mathematicians for almost 200 years. If he is right, he can claim a million-dollar prize from the Clay Mathematics Institute in Providence, Rhode Island, which has identified his topic as one of the seven most important open problems in the subject. Unfortunately, Otelbayev published his paper in Russian, and those looking to verify his claim can’t find mathematicians linguistically skilled enough to make sense of Otelbayev’s argument.
It concerns a piece of work known as the Navier-Stokes equations. First written down in 1822, the equations have solutions that describe how fluids such as air and water flow in any given situation. Engineers, meteorologists and oceanographers use these equations – and their solutions – every day. However, we have never had proof that the equations can be solved reliably in every situation. This is what Otelbayev claims to have found.
The discovery isn’t just of academic interest. We want to know that we can trust the Navier-Stokes equations in all kinds of circumstances. These equations allow us to understand phenomena such as the polar vortex – the mass of swirling air currents that brought extreme freezing temperatures to North America early in January. They also describe what happens to the oceans when carbon-dioxide concentrations rise; so far, the calculated effects include a weakening of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation. This is the network of currents that, among other things, creates the Gulf Stream, which keeps the UK’s weather reasonably mild.
Flowing fluids are extremely complicated systems and are often hypersensitive to small changes in composition. This is why it matters so much that the EU reached a legally binding agreement to reduce member-nations’ CO2 emissions.
Consider the effect of carbon-dioxide emissions on “clear-air turbulence”. This is caused by interactions between layers of air travelling at different speeds. Raise the concentration of carbon dioxide, and the solutions to the Navier-Stokes equations tell us that the turbulence moves to more northerly latitudes and higher altitudes. This will put it directly in the path of transatlantic flights. Passengers aren’t the only ones who’ll be made uncomfortable by the change: engineers are concerned that if turbulence becomes more intense, it could shorten the life of aircraft.
We could alter the transatlantic routes but that would use extra fuel and increase carbon emissions. And these are going up anyway, which, the Navier-Stokes equations could tell us, is likely to create still more problems. At least we think it could – but to make sure, we need to find a competent Russian-speaking mathematician. Perhaps Otelbayev should offer to split the Clay Institute cash: after all, those PhD students have to earn back their Harvard tuition fees somehow.
Many generations of Steven Isserlis's family have been involved in making music, transported and shaped by opportunities to play. A celebrated cellist himself, he describes how closely music is connected to a happy family life.
“I used to go to sleep every night to the sounds of my parents practising.” Photo: Getty
The other day, during an interview with a rather intense journalist in Armenia, I was asked a question that took me aback: “Coming from a musical family, did you feel more privilege or pressure?” I replied – almost immediately – “more privilege, of course”. But the question did get me thinking about what the effect of belonging to a family of musicians has on a child’s life.
Music was like an extra language in our family, one we all spoke. My father was a very keen amateur violinist, my mother a piano teacher, and my sisters both played piano for as long as I remember. The elder, Annette, is now a professional violist, as well as producer and arranger, while my middle sister, Rachel, is a professional violinist. (Perhaps the most expressive musician in the family, however, was our dog Dandy, a Dandie Dinmont Terrier of vast intellect and noble character – and impressive musical integrity. He would invariably howl a heartfelt accompaniment whenever any of us played Mozart’s piano sonata in C major, a particular favourite of his; but if we dared to change key – playing it a semitone lower, for instance – he would instantly break off and glare at us accusingly.) Obviously, with the piano, the violin and the viola taken care of, a cello was needed; and that was why I was taken to a local teacher to begin lessons when I was six.
The musical calling came from beyond our immediate family. While my mother’s background was not especially musical, my paternal grandfather was a pianist and composer famous in his day, Julius Isserlis. Julius was born in Kishinev in 1888. He was a child prodigy who was accepted to the Moscow Conservatoire at the age of 10 – a particularly impressive honour given that he was Jewish. His teachers there included a legendarily fierce piano professor called Vassily Safonov, who regularly reduced him to tears over the next six years or so, and for composition the great Sergei Taneyev, favourite pupil and later musical confidante of Tchaikovsky, and himself teacher of Rachmaninov, Scriabin and Medtner. Julius enjoyed a successful career within both Russia and the Soviet Union, until in 1922 Lenin decreed that 12 Soviet musicians should travel abroad with their families in order to spread the word about the cultural glories of the Soviet Union. A fine idea – except that not one of the 12 ever went back. Julius, with his wife Rita (also a pianist) and my father George, then five years old, settled in Vienna, lured by the same charms that had ensnared Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and countless others. (Not entirely relevant to the subject of this article, but this story is a favourite of mine: among their first tasks was that of finding somewhere to live. My father vaguely remembered going to see an apartment owned by a hausfrau of 102, who was friendly enough until she discovered that Julius was a musician. “I hate musicians,” she declared. “Why?” “Because I remember that when I was a little girl, my aunt had a lodger who was a filthy old man who used to spit all over the floor. Euagh!” “But who was that?” “Beethoven!” So, for many years before he died in 2012, I am sure that my father must have been the last person alive to have met someone who had met Beethoven.)
Life in Vienna, not surprisingly, became increasingly difficult as time went on, and anti-Semitism increased. Luckily, Julius happened to be in England, playing here for the first time, when the Anschluss took place in 1938. He stayed here, Rita and George finally joining him some months later. My father, after being briefly interned as an “enemy alien” on the Isle of Man – where he roomed and played chamber-music with future members of the Amadeus Quartet – settled in London, and built up a career as a metallurgist.
Music remained his driving passion, however, and also my mother’s. I used to go to sleep every night to the sounds of them practising their violin and piano. (A few years ago, we found a privately recorded 78 of them playing together; we had it put on to CD for George’s 90th birthday – it is actually quite beautiful!) As far back as I remember, Annette and Rachel were already having music lessons. The sight and sound of my older sisters playing their instruments was a tremendous spur – I had to do something similar, or I would be left out. So – after a false start at the age of four or five when I refused to play on the right side of the bridge, driving my poor teacher to distraction with the horrible squeaky noise that made – I joined in. The house was alive with the sound of music; perhaps we were not the best neighbours, but we were too involved to give others much thought.
Occasionally the five of us (with Dandy adding a descant if he was in the mood) would play quintets together. That was not an unqualified success, I have to admit, rehearsals frequently ending in tears. But of greater effect were the times that Annette (on piano in those days), Rachel and I would play trios together. Playing chamber music with two older sisters of whom I was a bit in awe has had a huge effect on my musical life. These days I like to describe myself as essentially a chamber-musician – even though I spend most of my life playing concertos with orchestras. I was taught, by my sisters as much as by my teachers, to listen to other voices, to treat music as a conversation between equals. It was a very different upbringing from that of the prodigy who is put in a room by him or herself and made to practise eight hours a day, learning to play louder and faster, the main aim being to win competitions.
Steven Isserlis with his cello after winning a Classical Brit Award in 2008. Photo: Getty
Of course, there were pressures on us too. We were entered far too soon for competitive music festivals – something I would never suggest for a musical child. Music is not a competitive sport. And sometimes it was hard for my sisters, who were less lucky in their childhood teachers than I was. At the age of ten, I had been sent to study with an extraordinary lady called Jane Cowan. She had studied general musicianship with Donald Tovey – still one of the most revered writers on music of all time – and cello with Emmanuel Feuermann, famous for his total command of the cello. (Much later, I would get to play his Stradivarius cello for many years – a satisfying connection.) Jane was an inspiring teacher; she gave me the feeling that the composers were in the room with us, fascinating, humorous beings who could become my friends for life. It was her influence that led me to renounce my earlier ambitions to be either a rabbi or a footballer, and to devote myself to the cello; and it was also my memories of those early lessons that inspired me later to write two books for children about composers, in the hope that my young readers would also make friends with these glorious (if complicated) beings.
Jane’s influence percolated into our home, as a great teacher’s will. Although she could not teach Annette or Rachel their instruments, she suggested better teachers for them than they’d had previously, and she coached us all in chamber music together. And so the family musical bond prospered, as we grew older and started to play professionally. Annette, Rachel and I grew up knowing many of the same people, because we work with them. Having been exposed to the same musical influences as children, we have pretty similar tastes; that is a huge link between us – like having a similar sense of humour. Some siblings drift apart as they get older; that couldn’t really happen to us, because we are always meeting at concerts – our own and those of our friends. We all married musicians, and have passed on the musical genes to our children – Rachel’s two daughters Isabel and Natasha, and my son Gabriel, who play viola, cello and cello respectively. No matter that of the three, only Isabel is training to be a professional musician; the musical link is there. At Christmas, the three children used to read through chamber music for fun; it was a melting sight.
So, apart from all the arguments for a musical education that are regularly put forth – music, we are reliably informed, is good for both brain and character development, as well as for a child’s happiness (it’s true that a child humming Mozart is likely to be a happy child) – I would say that some sort of connection with music is an overwhelmingly positive feature in family life. Of course, our family is exceptional in that we three siblings chose music as a profession; but that is not at all essential. Music is something that everyone in the family can share – either as players, on whatever level, or as enthusiastic listeners, telling the players how wonderful they are.
David Miliband's breezy silence on the 50p tax rate, and some snoozing overheard in the Palace of Varieties library.
Craves the limelight, does Claire Perry. The Amazonian Tory isn’t exactly shy, so she didn’t hide her joy when, last October, Cameron granted her wish to join the front bench. Perry, a leading light in George Osborne’s gang, told everybody who would listen and a fair few who didn’t want to. One downside of becoming a junior whip, she informed her local rag, was that she’d be gagged and the country would hear less of her. Many voters will view it as a blessing. By convention, the duty whip sits near the Speaker, enabling him or her to confer with the chair. The problem, as Perry discovered, is that the position is out of camera shot. She’s taken to sliding along the bench to be on television, looking frightfully important. She’s determined to be seen if not heard.
The municipal panjandrumMike Thornton, who succeeded racy Chris Huhne as the Liberal Democrat MP for Eastleigh, has risen without trace. He’s joined the work and pensions select committee. The Register of Members’ Interests records a £47.75 monthly payment for his work as a borough councillor on top of an MP’s salary of £66,396. The irony of “Two Jobs” Thornton sitting on a body dealing with unemployment and the benefit cuts isn’t lost, I gather, on sniggering political opponents.
David Miliband, a member of Labour’s lost leaders’ club (president: Denis Healey), noticeably declined to endorse his younger brother Ed’s 50p tax plan on income topping £150,000 while on a visit to his abandoned South Shields seat. The silence jarred, as in a previous breath the elder Milibrother had pledged complete loyalty to his party’s sibling leader. Only a cynic would dare suggest he’d calculated that the policy would cost a £300,000-a-year head of an international charity an extra £7,500 in tax if that individual was paid in London not New York and at some point intends to return to Blighty.
To Aviemore and the Cairngorm Brewery, home of the Ginger Rodent. Your correspondent recalls the local MP, Danny Alexander, was tickled that an ale was brewed in his dishonour after Harriet Harman’s un-PC dig. Alexander, I discovered, bought ten cases of the brewery’s Ginger Rodent ale. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury didn’t ask for a discount. Either Alexander is a good constituency MP or his lack of financial nous explains why the ConDem coalition is failing to balance the books.
The deep leather armchairsin the Palace of Varieties are soporific. The end of the Commons library, where the likes of the veteran Labourite David Winnick and the Tory Edward Leigh retire to rest their eyes and contemplate significant issues, is overflowing. It is known as the rough sleepers’ end of the library.
Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror
UKIP has surged into second place but it won't be troubling Labour next Thursday.
Ahead of the Wythenshawe and Sale East by-election next Thursday (triggered by the death of Labour MP Paul Goggins), some in Westminster have been excitedly speculating that UKIP could win its first Westminster seat. Toby Young, for instance, recently wrote:
It will be enormously helpful if Ukip wins the forthcoming by-election in the constituency of Wythenshawe and Sale East. That is not as far-fetched as you might think, as Mike Smithson points out in this post for PoliticalBetting.com. Since 2011, Ukip have come second in five by-elections – Eastleigh, South Shields, Barnsley Central, Rotherham and Middlesbrough – and the party did well in local elections in Wythenshawe and Sale East in 2012. Last night, Lord Ashcroft tweeted that betting on the outcome of the by-election had been temporarily suspended, suggesting that the bookies were busy recalculating the odds of a Ukip victory after several large bets had been placed on precisely that outcome.
But judging by the poll just published by the prolific Lord Ashcroft, they'll be weighing the Labour vote next week, not counting it. The survey of 1,009 voters (conducted between 3 and 5 February) puts the party in first place on 61 per cent, up 17 points since the general election and 46 points ahead of UKIP.
Farage's party has more than quadrupled its vote share since 2010, leapfrogging the Tories and the Lib Dems (who will struggle to keep their deposit) in the process, but so fast has its rise been that this is no longer considered surprising. After finishing second in five by-elections since 2011, the bar is now set much higher.
Ashcroft rightly notes that "A lot can change in a week – especially the last week of a by-election campaign – and any poll is a snapshot not a forecast". But it's now clear that Wythenshawe isn't going to provide UKIP with the parliamentary breakthrough it craves.
Not a response to NYC's overheated property market, but one possible sustainable construction method for the future.
Remember the fungus chair?
Eric Klarenbeek, a self-described “artist of the unusual” (he’s not wrong), has, along with the University of Wageningen, created the MyceliumChair. Mycelium is a bit like the root bit of a fungus, the long, wiry, almost hair-like strands that grow through the soil in search of nutrients. Klarenbeek 3D prints objects using a material that is just a mash of wet straw and mycelium.
The mycelium grows, absorbing water and filling the gaps between the straw, creating what Klarenbeek considers to be a very strong - yet lightweight - material. What you see at the top of this article is the final chair, dried out and wrapped in bioplastic to stop the mycelium growth getting out of hand.
Here's a picture, to jog your memory:
In that piece I mentioned a practice in New York City called The Living, which has been experimenting with fungus as a method for growing building bricks. Anyone visiting NYC from this June will get the chance to see a full-scale implementation of its work - its winning entry into the Museum of Modern Art’s annual Young Architects Program, “Hy-Fi”, is a tower grown out of fungus, “a building that grows out of nothing but earth and returns to nothing but earth”, MoMA says:
Using biological technologies combined with cutting-edge computation and engineering to create new building materials, The Living will use a new method of bio-design, resulting in a structure that is 100 percent organic material. The structure temporarily diverts the natural carbon cycle to produce a building that grows out of nothing but earth and returns to nothing but earth—with almost no waste, no energy needs, and no carbon emissions. This approach offers a new vision for society’s approach to physical objects and the built environment. It also offers a new definition of local materials, and a direct relationship to New York state agriculture and innovation culture, New York City artists and non-profits, and Queens community gardens.”
The two-storey towers, to be built in the outside space at MoMA's PS1 venue in Long Island City, will use two kinds of brick. From the bottom until most of the way up the top the bricks will be made of a mixture of corn husk (a common agricultural waste product) and mycelium; at the top, there will be rows of bricks that are covered in a reflective film. After the tower is built, sunlight will be directed onto the fungal bricks below by the reflective bricks above, encouraging them to grow faster.
Unlike other buildings, then, Hy-Fi will continue to “build” even after everything’s in place. While it will start out as quite a light structure, the mycelium’s growth will increase its density. Here’s a promo video from The Living architect David Benjamin:
Inside the towers there’s going to be a space for sitting and relaxing, and outside there’s space for MoMA’s summer series of gigs and events. More importantly, it shows that there’s potential in seemingly useless waste products - and, better still, when summer’s up and Hy-Fi has to come down, the fungus bricks can be easily composted, while the reflective bricks get recycled in another project. It's a completely sustainable building method from beginning to end.
The Tories and the conservative media would revolt against a Labour government dependent on Scottish MPs for its majority.
With just eight months to go until the vote and the polls narrowing, the Scottish independence referendum (an issue the NS has covered in detail for years) is finally receiving the attention it deserves. The FT has run an excellent series on the subject this week and the Spectator (another title that has long followed the issue) devotes its cover this week to the danger of a victory for the nationalists.
One overlooked question raised by former Tory MSP Brian Monteith on ConservativeHome today is that of the status of Westminster's 59 Scottish MPs following a Yes vote in September. The current assumption on all sides is that they will be elected as usual in May 2015 before leaving the Commons after the post-referendum negotiations conclude and Scotland becomes an officially independent country (24 March 2016 is the date slated by the SNP, just in time for the Scottish Parliamentary election on 5 May 2016).
But it is easy to see, as Monteith writes, how this could create a "constitutional crisis the like of which has never been seen". The Tories and the right-wing media would revolt against a Labour (or Labour-Lib Dem) government dependent on Scottish MPs for its majority after May 2015, denouncing it as an illegitimate imposition on the rest of the UK. Conservative peer Howard Flight has already suggested that they should stand down at the election in the event of an independence vote; many others in his party are likely to take the same view. Ed Miliband, meanwhile, could face the prospect of losing his majority just 10 months after he becomes prime minister.
Then there is the question of whether the 59 Scots should be allowed to take part in Westminster votes. Would it be acceptable for them to pass laws governing a country that they will soon no longer belong to? (It is, essentially, the West Lothian question in a more extreme form.)
There are no easy answers to these questions but just to pose them is a reminder of how Scottish independence would leave Westminster in entirely uncharted territory.