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Articles on this Page
- 02/13/14--07:02: _“Good” and “bad” wa...
- 02/13/14--08:38: _Andy Burnham: NHS m...
- 02/13/14--09:21: _Behold how the wage...
- 02/13/14--09:25: _Philip Seymour Hoff...
- 02/13/14--09:30: _Borrowing is the be...
- 02/13/14--09:33: _What have we learne...
- 02/13/14--09:42: _Reckless by William...
- 02/13/14--18:56: _Labour win Wythensh...
- 02/13/14--23:22: _Morning Call: pick ...
- 02/14/14--01:11: _Valentine’s Day son...
- 02/14/14--01:54: _Facebook introduces...
- 02/14/14--02:06: _Cameron's abandonme...
- 02/14/14--02:43: _In the Frame: How t...
- 02/14/14--02:47: _Judging sex: why ca...
- 02/14/14--03:03: _How can businesses ...
- 02/14/14--03:11: _Hanif Kureishi is g...
- 02/14/14--03:32: _David Cameron takes...
- 02/14/14--03:52: _Why don't we care t...
- 02/14/14--03:55: _Belgium extends its...
- 02/14/14--04:30: _Social media and th...
- 02/13/14--07:02: “Good” and “bad” war – and the struggle of memory against forgetting
- 02/13/14--08:38: Andy Burnham: NHS must be exempted from EU-US free trade agreement
- 02/13/14--09:25: Philip Seymour Hoffman, a death in the Village confirmed via radio
- 02/13/14--09:30: Borrowing is the best way to pay for flood protection
- 02/13/14--09:33: What have we learned from the emotional circus of Benefits Street?
- 02/13/14--23:22: Morning Call: pick of the papers
- 02/14/14--01:11: Valentine’s Day songs – and how to write one
- 02/14/14--02:43: In the Frame: How to politically survive a flood
- 02/14/14--03:03: How can businesses guard against the floods?
- 02/14/14--03:11: Hanif Kureishi is getting the last word on postmodern biography
- 02/14/14--03:55: Belgium extends its euthanasia laws to children
- 02/14/14--04:30: Social media and the second Hillsborough inquest
The regime that Washington created in the South, the “good” Korea, was set up and run largely by those who had collaborated with Japan and America.
Fifty years ago, E P Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class rescued the study of history from the powerful. Kings and queens, landowners, industrialists and imperialists had owned much of public memory. In 1980, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States also demonstrated that the freedoms and rights we enjoy precariously – free expression, free association, the jury system, rights of minorities – were the achievements of ordinary people, not the gift of elites.
Historians, like journalists, play their most honourable role when they myth-bust. Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America (1971) achieved this for the people of a continent whose historical memory was colonised and mutated by the dominance of the United States.
The “good” world war of 1939-45 provides a bottomless ethical bath in which the west’s “peacetime” conquests are cleansed. Demystifying historical investigation stands in the way. Richard Overy’s 1939: Countdown to War (2009) is a devastating explanation of why that cataclysm was not inevitable.
We need such smokescreen-clearing now more than ever. The powerful would like us to believe that the likes of Thompson, Zinn and Galeano are no longer necessary: that we live, as Time magazine put it, “in an eternal present”, in which reflection is limited to Facebook and historical narrative is the preserve of Hollywood. This is a confidence trick. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell wrote: “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.”
The people of Korea understand this well. The slaughter on their peninsula following the Second World War is known as “the forgotten war”, whose significance for all humanity has long been suppressed in military histories of cold war good versus evil.
I have just read The Korean War: a History by Bruce Cumings (2010), professor of history at the University of Chicago. I first saw Cumings interviewed in Regis Tremblay’s extraordinary film The Ghosts of Jeju, which documents the 1948 uprising on the southern Korean island of Jeju and the campaign by the present-day islanders to stop the building of a base with US missiles aimed provocatively at China.
Like most Koreans, the farmers and fishing families protested the senseless division of their nation between North and South in 1945 – a line drawn along the 38th Parallel by an American official, Dean Rusk, who had “consulted a map around midnight on the day after we obliterated Nagasaki with an atomic bomb”, as Cumings writes. The myth of a “good” Korea (the South) and a “bad” Korea (the North) was invented.
In fact, Korea, North and South, has a remarkable people’s history of resistance to feudalism and foreign occupation, notably Japan’s in the 20th century. When the Americans defeated Japan in 1945, they occupied Korea and often branded those who had resisted the Japanese as “commies”. On Jeju, as many as 60,000 people were massacred by militias supported, directed and, in some cases, commanded by US officers.
This and other unreported atrocities were a “forgotten” prelude to the Korean war (1950-53), in which more people were killed than Japanese died during all of the Second World War. Cumings gives an astonishing tally of the degree of destruction of the cities of the North: Pyongyang 75 per cent, Sariwon 95 per cent, Sinanju 100 per cent. Great dams in the North were bombed in order to unleash internal tsunamis. “Anti-personnel” weapons, such as napalm, were tested on civilians. Cumings’s superb investigation helps us understand why today’s North Korea seems so strange: an anachronism sustained by an enduring mentality of siege. “The unhindered machinery of incendiary bombing was visited on the North for three years,” he writes, “yielding a wasteland and a surviving mole people who had learned to love the shelter of caves, mountains, tunnels and redoubts, a subterranean world that became the basis for reconstructing a country and a memento for building a fierce hatred through the ranks of the population. Their truth is not cold, antiquarian, ineffectual knowledge.” Cumings quotes Virginia Woolf to describe how the trauma of this kind of war “confers memory”.
The guerrilla leader Kim Il-sung had begun fighting the Japanese militarists in 1932. Every characteristic attached to the regime he founded – “communist, rogue state, evil enemy” – derives from a ruthless, brutal, heroic resistance: first to Japan, then the United States, which threatened to nuke the rubble its bombers had left. Cumings exposes as propaganda the notion that Kim Il-sung, leader of the “bad” Korea, was a stooge of Moscow. In contrast, the regime that Washington invented in the South, the “good” Korea, was run largely by those who had collaborated with Japan and America.
The Korean war has an unrecognised distinction. It was in the smouldering ruins of the peninsula that the US turned itself into what Cumings calls “an archipelago of empire”. When the Soviet Union collapsed in the 1990s, it was as if the whole planet was declared American – or else.
But there is China now. The base being built on Jeju Island will face the Chinese metropolis of Shanghai, less than 300 miles away, and the industrial heartland of the only country whose economic power is likely to surpass that of the US. “China,” says President Obama in a leaked briefing paper, “is our fast-emerging strategic threat.” By 2020, almost two-thirds of all US naval forces in the world will be transferred to the Asia-Pacific region. In an arc extending from Australia to Japan and beyond, China will be ringed by US missiles and nuclear-weapons-armed aircraft. Will this threat to all of us be “forgotten”, too?
Shadow health secretary reveals he will soon travel to Brussels to lobby for the health service to be exempted from international competition law.
Aside from his threat to vote against HS2 (for which he was swiftly rebuked by Labour), the most notable comments by Andy Burnham in my interview with him for this week's NS were on the proposed EU-US free trade agreeement and its implications for the NHS. Many Labour activists and MPs are concerned at how the deal, officially known as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), could give permanent legal backing to the competition-based regime introduced by the coalition.
As Benedict Cooper wrote recently on The Staggers: "A key part of the TTIP is 'harmonisation' between EU and US regulation, especially for regulation in the process of being formulated. In Britain, the coalition government’s Health and Social Care Act has been prepared in the same vein – to 'harmonise' the UK with the US health system.
"This will open the floodgates for private healthcare providers that have made dizzying levels of profits from healthcare in the United States, while lobbying furiously against any attempts by President Obama to provide free care for people living in poverty. With the help of the Conservative government and soon the EU, these companies will soon be let loose, freed to do the same in Britain ...
... The agreement will provide a legal heavy hand to the corporations seeking to grind down the health service. It will act as a transatlantic bridge between the Health and Social Care Act in the UK, which forces the NHS to compete for contracts, and the private companies in the US eager to take it on for their own gain."
When I spoke to Burnham, he revealed that he will soon travel to Brussels to lobby the EU Commission to exempt the NHS (and healthcare in general) from the agreeement. He said:
I’ve not said it before yet, but it means me arguing strongly in these discussions about the EU-US trade treaty. It means being absolutely explicit that we carry over the designation for health in the Treaty of Rome, we need to say that health can be pulled out.
In my view, the market is not the answer to 21st century healthcare. The demands of 21st century care require integration, markets deliver fragmentation. That’s one intellectual reason why markets are wrong. The second reason is, if you look around the world, market-based systems cost more not less than the NHS. It’s us and New Zealand who both have quite similar planned systems, which sounds a bit old fashioned, but it’s that ability of saying at national level, this goes there, that goes there, we can pay the staff this, we can set these treatment standards, NICE will pay for this but not for this; that brings an inherent efficiency to providing healthcare to an entire population, that N in NHS is its most precious thing. That’s the thing that enables you to control the costs at a national level. And that’s what must be protected at all costs. That’s why I’m really clear that markets are the wrong answer and we’ve got to pull the system out of, to use David Nicholson’s words, 'morass of competition'.
I’m going to go to Brussels soon and I’m seeking meetings with the commission to say that we want, in the EU-US trade treaty, designation for healthcare so that we can exempt it from contract law, from competition law.
Should Labour fail to secure these reassurances from the EU, it would undoubtedly embolden the party's small but significant eurosceptic wing, those who have long denounced the EU as a "capitalist club".
It's worth remembering, of course, that it was once Labour, not the Conservatives, that was most divided over Europe. The 1975 referendum on EEC membership was called by Harold Wilson after his cabinet proved unable to agree a joint position (Wilson subsequently suspended collective ministerial responsibility and allowed ministers to campaign for either side, an option that David Cameron may well be forced to consider) and Michael Foot's support for withdrawal was one of the main causes of the SDP split in 1981. Those divisions have not entirely been consigned to history. While the Tories are now split between 'inners' and 'outers', in Labour the fundamental europhile-eurosceptic divide persists.
Britain’s ongoing flirtation with a military way of life.
At peak hours, Oxford Circus Tube station in London is now so busy that they often shut the steel accordion gates at all four entrances and the crowd backs up, filling the pavement and milling into the roadway. The other evening, returning from my constitutional swim in the Marshall Street baths, I was struck by this noteworthy phenomenon: cheek-by-bluing- jowl with the lowing herd of quiescent commuters, I watched a young woman using both her pinioned hands to text a long message on her phone, as the gates were opened and the tight pack carried her inexorably down the steep, rain-slicked steps and into the bowels of the earth. Was this sheer sangfroid, I wondered, or simply a faith in the inherent orderliness of the British mob? After all, any number of manias might have gripped these clenched folk while she concentrated on her tapping and toggling – she could easily have slipped and been trampled by Evening Standard readers; a fate, I’m sure you’ll agree, far worse than death.
This little vignette of contemporary urban life returned to me a few nights later as, stopping my bike in Hyde Park to light a maximally high-tar cigarette, I was overwhelmed by a platoon of office workers being quick-jogged past me; at the rear was a superannuated squaddie wearing camouflage trousers and carrying a heavy pack on his back, who as he ran up and down shouted orders at them: “Tighten up, now! Come on, keep moving!” I’d witnessed this phenomenon before – and I dare say you have, as well. British Military Fitness (BMF) now holds sessions at over 100 venues around the country; as it so appositely puts it on its website, it has “nine parks in and around Birmingham”, four in Edinburgh, and so on. This bizarre territorial expansion is likely to continue: after all, Major Robin Cope, who started BMF in 1999, held his first outdoor fitness class with a mere three recruits and, given the subsequent rapid advance, we can look forward to no dog-shit-bedizened scrap of public space being without its tracksuited occupiers by, say, 2025.
What a strange invasion it is. It was said of Field Marshal Montgomery that he hung a sign on the flap of his HQ tent during the desert campaign that read, “I’m 99 per cent fit – are you?” But I doubt even his fervidly repressed imagination could have dreamed up the spectacle of 20 or 30 flabby arses rising and falling as one, as their possessors are inveighed at by their hireling commanders to hump the muddy ground.
I’m not so fanatic an individualist that I can’t understand the appeal of getting fit in this way but it’s one thing to voluntarily join an association of like-minded sports folk and quite another to pay for the privilege of being treated like a grunt. Besides, what have these people been all day if not under orders? Like the young woman at Oxford Circus, they’ve been moved by the crowd, their feet scarcely touching the ground, from mortgaged home to wage-slaving work, and now they’re in a darkened park being further molested. It’s a hardy perennial in the British political park that what the anomic youth need is a bit of military discipline. While cost – far more than public objection – is a bar to bringing back national service, the coalition seeks to continue the long-running bout in which flyweight Britain is tag-teamed with the heavyweight hegemon by putting reservist amateurs in the ring.
Still, while BMF is around, no one need fear a decline in national morale, nor an inability to field fighting-fit computer programmers and estate agents should the balloon happen to go up. In Hyde Park, puffing on my fag, I asked a camo-man who was locking the BMF van why his fellow instructors always seemed to carry heavy packs. I expected him to say they were full of rocks, to show the doughy what it was like to be 99 per cent doughty – but he only barked at me, “Water!” before breaking into a run.
After the First World War, quite a number of ex-army types sought to strengthen the national backbone by forming political organisations that drilled in public parks, in uniform. Eventually, the government had to crack down on them – but it seems that BMF is above the law when it comes to being paramilitary; perhaps because its uniforms are so risible but more probably because its fanatical ideology represents no threat to our supine and flabby state whatsoever.
Nothing’s true until it has been uttered on National Public Radio.
1010 Wins Radio; National Public Radio
It’s 1.58pm, 2 February, Super Bowl Sunday. The rolling news channel 1010 Wins in New York is reporting that the annual prediction of the weather guru groundhog is for “six more weeks of hard winter”. All the stories on 1010 Wins are delivered too briefly over the sound of a typewriter tapping away in the background like in the scene in Bugsy Malone in which the foreign reporters are crushed into phone booths delivering copy.
Tap, tap, tap. “Actor Philip Seymour Hoffman has been found dead in his West Village apartment from a suspected heroin overdose. The actor was 46.” Tap, tap, tap. “Another winter storm is on the way, in case you needed another excuse not to go to work tomorrow.” What?
When River Phoenix died from drugs in 1993, the sadness was intense but different. There was nothing to show that Phoenix was ever going to be great, really: it’s more that he was unusually unconfected and had such a lovely uneasiness with his own beauty. But PSH?
This is a serious loss. There have been few actors so mature, so grown-up, who ever gave off such a thrill; few able to transmit such moral queasiness or a sense of inner disgrace. Think of him flinging himself out of his sports car as Freddie in The Talented Mr Ripley and crossing the road, sneering, to kiss Jude Law on both cheeks – the exquisite aggression. Or as George in Scent of a Woman: he was only 25 and yet already smoking in that seemingly decades-practised, film noir way (also particular to Jeff Bridges and Robert Mitchum), going about prodding people sharply in the shoulders with those thick, freckled fingers. Still slim in that movie, he walked like someone who either anticipated an important belly or had a deep sense memory of one. The latter-day Hoffman’s gut was as great as Orson Welles’s or Brando’s.
The only thing to do was turn to National Public Radio (NPR), at that moment inoccuously reporting on the cornerback Richard Sherman’s preparations for the evening’s kick-off. “It might not be true,” was the gist of the station’s online message board. “In the case of news,” wrote Voltaire, “we should always wait for the sacrament of confirmation.” In the United States, nothing’s true until it’s on NPR. And soon enough, it was.
As flood defences provide protection for many years to come, it is wholly appropriate to pay for them gradually with long-term borrowing.
Economics is not called the dismal science for nothing. As we watch the shocking images of filthy water pouring into homes and distressed residents leaving in rubber dinghies, economists are already debating what this means for the next GDP figures. This highlights the shortcomings of GDP as a measure of economic progress, but looking at the wider economic impacts can help us deal with the challenges posed by the floods.
Let us start with GDP and the surprising fact that natural disasters can be good for GDP, at least in months that follow. In the case of the floods, there will need to be a lot of extra spending by households, businesses, insurance companies and the government to clean-up and restore damaged property and infrastructure. Some things will work in the other direction, for instance if a lot of people are unable to work due to the floods, but it will be no big surprise if GDP is pushed up for a while.
But as ever in economics, there is no free lunch and someone will have to pick up the tab. If households are not fully insured, it will be them. If they have cover, it will be the insurance companies and, in turn, the owners of these companies, which may include our pension funds. The government will also need to stump up for the cost of repairing public infrastructure. For some households and the government it may mean taking on more debt, while for others it may mean running down savings. In economic terms, the cost of making good the damage caused by the floods will be to lower the UK’s net wealth.
As the crisis is still unfolding, we don’t yet know how big a dent it will make in UK wealth. Some reports have suggested that it may cost insurers up to £1bn but there will also be uninsured losses for some households and substantial damage to public infrastructure. Of course, none of these losses take any account of the human cost of having one’s home flooded.
If climate change leads to more winters like this one, we are going to experience more frequent hits to the country’s wealth. Taking a longer perspective, we need to play our part in decarbonising the world economy to try to keep climate change within reasonable limits. More immediately, we need to prepare for the problems that even moderate levels of climate change may bring, such as increased winter rainfall.
While the Environment Agency has a long term investment strategy to protect us against flooding and coastal erosion, not enough is being spent to prevent increasing numbers of households being at risk of serious flooding. The Committee on Climate Change estimate that we should have spent over £0.5bn more on flood defences between 2011-15 and that this under-spending could lead to avoidable flood damages of around £3bn in the coming years.
Naturally, there is a need for a rigorous economic appraisal to ensure that each flood defence scheme makes sense, but we should not set the bar too high. These schemes are now expected to show an incredibly high average of £8 of damage avoided for every £1 spent by the government. Compare this with HS2, where most estimates suggest benefits of around £2 for every £1 spent.
The sums of money that we need to spend on flood defences are not even that large in comparison with overall government spending. For instance, if we were to spend an extra £250m a year over the next five years to make up for the past shortfall and return spending to the Environment Agency’s plan, this would raise annual government spending by less than 0.04 per cent. While this could be covered by lower spending elsewhere or higher taxation, we could also simply accept slightly more government borrowing. Given the small sums involved, it need not derail plans to balance the budget in the next parliament.
Indeed, as flood defences provide protection for many years to come, it seems wholly appropriate to pay for them gradually with long-term borrowing by issuing 30 or even 50 year gilts, especially when the cost of financing is so low. This would mean that the burden would not only fall on the current generation of taxpayers, but would be spread across the current and future beneficiaries of the flood defences.
The shocking flooding across large parts of our country must focus minds on the urgent need to improve our defences. The economic and human costs of flooding are real and cannot be masked by any short-term rise in GDP. We need to be prepared to make sensible investments to protect the country’s wealth from its increasingly dismal winter weather.
Julian Morgan is chief economist of Green Alliance
Channel 4’s outrage-inducing look into the lives of benefit claimants has been much discussed – meanwhile a more honest portrayal of life on benefits is over on BBC Four.
Fran Moss lives on a run-down council estate in Leeds. She doesn’t work because she suffers from epilepsy, and most of the furniture in her draughty house has been salvaged from skips. Life is a struggle financially; without help from the state, she would not survive. But still, she has hope for the future in the form of her 12-year-old daughter, Niamh.
For a long time, Niamh used to say that she wanted to go to the local grammar school, a fee-paying establishment she had seen from the top of the bus, and liked the look of. It was a kind of joke between them, for how could Niamh ever finance such an ambition, even if she were somehow able to talk her way in? Without telling her mother, Niamh applied for a place at the school and was awarded a full bursary. Fran would have to pay only for her uniform and bus pass. Swooning with pride and determined to make her daughter’s dreams come true, Fran sprang into action, raising the necessary £2,000 – lab coats and gym skirts do not come cheap in the better suburbs of Leeds – by taking her scant jewellery to the pawnshop and borrowing from a loan shark (a stupid thing to do, as she is the first to concede). At some point soon, she will have to flog the only thing of any value she has left: a Liverpool strip signed by, among others, Ian Rush.
Meanwhile, Fran has been to the market to buy fabric remnants, the better to make a suit to wear the next time she has to visit the school. Bad enough that her daughter has to borrow another girl’s computer (a loan she pays for in chocolate); she would rather not let her down further by looking a fright on parents’ evening.
I know about Fran and Niamh because they appeared in These Four Walls, a documentary financed with help from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and directed by Peter Gordon, which went out on BBC4 on 2 February. Needless to say, this programme was screened with rather less fuss and fanfare than Channel 4’s Benefits Street, and no wonder. For one thing, this was a film that required patience on the part of the audience, each story spooling out through a long monologue to camera rather than in some shouty, snappily edited clip designed to grab viewers’ attention by making us instantly furious (for whatever reason).
For another, Fran and Niamh and their confounding aspirations – though the story does not end entirely happily, Niamh having struggled to fit in at her smart new school – hardly fit the fashionable narrative when it comes to what we are miserably learning to call “benefit culture”.
They seem, in this respect, almost to belong to another time; when Niamh spoke of Oxford, the university she would love to attend, I couldn’t help but think of Hardy’s Jude the Obscure.
How did we get here? Yearning and self-improvement: almost without our noticing it, these have become taboo words when it comes to the poorest in our society. The right refuses to believe that such instincts can coexist with the claiming of disability allowance and all the rest, and the left fears these ideas might sound patronising. And yet, they have not gone away.
What Peter Gordon’s film showed, over and over again, was something that Benefits Street has not much bothered to trouble itself with: simply that most people who claim benefits hope to have to do so for a limited time only; that optimism and ambition will stubbornly live on, even in the direst circumstances.
I did not review Benefits Street the week the series began in January; the mere thought of it induced in me a terrible weariness (its Ronseal name told you everything you needed to know about what was inside this particular tin). But now that it’s coming to an end – the final part will be screened on 10 February, after which Channel 4 will stage an excruciating-sounding “debate”, hosted by Richard Bacon, in which the residents of James Turner Street in Birmingham may or may not take part – I feel I must have my say, not least because These Four Walls has cast its faults into such sharp relief.
One of the more ghastly aspects of the feeding frenzy that has surrounded the series has been the disingenuous, cynical way columnists have fallen into line according to their politics, those on the right pretending to feel sorry for people “betrayed” by benefits culture and those on the left complaining of “exploitation” by the producers. I don’t fall into either camp. You don’t have to be right-wing (I am not) to see the claims of exploitation as patronising. You don’t have to be a crazed fan of the bedroom tax to see White Dee, the matriarch and biggest “star” of the show, as a monster of selfishness. This is a woman who can’t be bothered to leave the house to watch her daughter compete in an athletics competition.
Benefits Street, it seems to me, has been cast as carefully as any soap. The producers wanted performers, and that was what they got. Those inhabitants of James Turner Street who agreed to appear on the show (we still don’t know how many turned down the chance on the grounds they had a job to go to, or their dignity to maintain) knew what they were doing; they are no more exploited than anyone else who agrees to let a camera into their front room. They watch a lot of television and know perfectly well the reality tropes, from Big Brother on.
You can sometimes see this on screen, White Dee looking slyly at the camera to gauge the effect she is having, Fungi addressing the man behind it even though it is his neighbour who has asked the question. There is relish in Dee’s play-acting, whether she is laughing too explosively at Fungi’s antics or raging at a neighbour whose child has attacked those of SB, the series’ resident wannabe model. (If she does agree to appear in the Channel 4 “debate”, you can bet your bottom dollar her anger will feel every bit as synthetic as anything you might see on The Jeremy Kyle Show.)
Sympathy – I mean on the part of the producers – isn’t the issue here (Dominic Sandbrook, writing in the Daily Mail, insisted the makers were sympathetic to their subjects, while Owen Jones, in the Independent, accused the series of being the televisual equivalent of a set of stocks). Doubtless the people who made Benefits Street liked Dee and Fungi when they were gobby and worried when they were not; and what you see on screen is a natural human response to this. It has next to nothing to do with making us think harder about the plight of the poor, or how best the average taxpayer’s money might be used to improve their lives. I don’t think the producers take a position at all. They just hope for a few laughs, and maybe the odd flood of tears.
Much of the outrage from the left has centred on the idea that misery and bad luck should not be used for our amusement; they ineptly describe the phenomenon as “poverty porn”. To which all I can say is: if only. Benefits Street might not be instructional, but nor is it particularly entertaining. While I was watching These Four Walls, I didn’t think about anything else. The stories it told were so absorbing, kaleidoscopes of conflicting human emotions.
I couldn’t tear my eyes from Charlotte, a single mother who longed only to have enough cash to be able to buy “a joint of lamb with all the trimmings”; her honesty was costing her something and you felt that, and respected it. But Benefits Street is mostly tedious: a babyish, one-note circus of repetition, cliché, showing off and desperate editing. It has been made without care and without context: it’s the newspaper feature writers who’ve had to do the job of explaining the social history that has brought us to this time and place.
So, in this sense, the series is, above all, yet another symptom of Channel 4’s painful decline. Once, it would have been Channel 4 that would have made These Four Walls. It would have disdained a show like Benefits Street for the tinny, ratings-chasing festival of shouting and exhibitionism that it is.
Rachel Cooke is the NS’s television critic
Reckless leaves you wanting to know what happens next, even though, with the real life events, you know the answer.
Quercus, 512pp, £18.99
William Nicholson’s writing credits include the screenplays for Gladiator and Shadowlands, award-winning children’s fiction and a series of interlinked novels, of which his latest, Reckless, is a part.
Reckless is a story about faith and love and the madness of nuclear war. It covers the two decades from the end of the Second World War to the culmination of the Cuban nuclear missile crisis in 1962 and draws the reader into the personal and political lives of both real and fictionalised characters who are affected by Kennedy and Khrushchev locking horns.
The real-life characters include JFK and Khrushchev, Stephen Ward (with the Profumo affair starlets Mandy Rice-Davies and Christine Keeler), Harold Macmillan, Lady Astor and most memorably Lord Mountbatten. At the heart of the novel is Mountbatten’s (fictional) adviser Rupert Blundell, the man who tells Mountbatten “things I don’t want to hear … and that’s just what I want to hear”.
Blundell is searching for an end to his loneliness. He feels that his chance for love passed him by in 1945 when, in Sri Lanka with Mountbatten, he dares to suggest to his colleague Joyce that he wants more than friendship. Back in London in the early 1960s, Rupert crosses paths with Mary, another lonely figure who, on a whim, he decides to help find what she is looking for.
With the Cuban crisis looming, we also meet Pamela, a bored, beautiful girl who tries to find love in Ward’s set, a group of impossibly self-obsessed friends who weekend at the Astors’ Cliveden estate, where anything goes.
Reckless leaves you wanting to know what happens next, even though, with the real life events, you know the answer. Nicholson also has a talent for capturing the minutiae of life. When Pamela’s marriage-obsessed friend Susie hears that nuclear war is imminent, she asks: “And you think this might happen before my wedding?”
Reckless weaves together complex issues and manages to maintain suspense and intrigue throughout. It leaves you with the feeling that whenever madness is afoot, there are decent people behind the scenes, like Rupert, who are more significant than they think.
Miliband's party holds the seat on a swing of 11% as UKIP rise from fifth to second and the Lib Dems lose their deposit.
As expected, Labour comfortably won the Wythenshawe and Sale East by-election (triggered by the death of Paul Goggins) with 55% of the vote, a swing of 11% from the Conservatives. The real race was between UKIP and the Tories for second place.
For the sixth time in a by-election in this parliament, UKIP finished as runners-up, with 17.9% of the vote, an increase of 14.5% since 2010 and their fourth best by-election result ever. But so high have expectations been raised, with some in Westminster even speculating earlier this month that the party could win the seat, that such a result is no longer viewed as surprising. Since Eastleigh, when UKIP finished second with 27% of the vote (its best-ever by-election result), the bar has been dramatically raised.
As for the other parties, it was another terrible night for the Lib Dems. For the eighth time in this parliament, they lost their deposit after their vote collapsed from 22.3% to just 4.9%, leaving them just 428 votes ahead of the Greens and 468 votes ahead of the BNP. Turnout was a derisory 28.2%.
Here's the result in full.
Labour 13,261 - 55.34% (+11.21%)
UKIP 4,301 - 17.95% (+14.51%)
Conservative 3,479 - 14.52% (-11.03%)
Liberal Democrat 1,176 - 4.91% (-17.44%)
Green 748 - 3.12% (N/A)
BNP 708 - 2.95% (-0.9%)
Monster Raving Loony 288 - 1.2% (N/A)
Turnout: 23,961 - 28.24%
Swing to Labour from Conservative: 11.12%
The ten must-read comment pieces from this morning's papers.
1. UK storms and floods show climate change is upon us (Guardian)
The wettest and hottest years on record mean the world must take action now or face disaster, says Nicholas Stern.
2. Britain risks a bigger financial hangover (Financial Times)
Private borrowing to buy houses is deemed good – more government borrowing to build roads is not, writes Martin Wolf.
3. The eurozone crisis is just getting started (Daily Telegraph)
The project to impose political union is bringing economic ruin, making the legitimacy of the EU project ever more vulnerable, says Jeremy Warner.
4. Yakety-yak doesn’t give power to the people (Times)
Ed Miliband’s instincts on helping the little guy are right – but you don’t achieve this by forming committees, says Philip Collins.
Alex Salmond could do worse than look to Ireland in the 1920s, says Andreas Whittam Smith.
Flying the rainbow flag for Sochi is a nice gesture, but western nations should look at our own treatment of LGBT people, says Laurie Penny.
7. An unsettled Boris courts Westminster’s awkward squad (Daily Telegraph)
Boris’s supporters are optimistic that he’ll be in a safe Tory seat come May 2015, but they know that there’s more work to do, writes Isabel Hardman.
8. How to find the needle in Snowden’s haystack (Financial Times)
The revelations have yet to cast the spooks as a law unto themselves or a threat to our freedom, writes Philip Stephens.
The government’s defeat over Syria may be seen as the moment foreign interventions ended, says Antony Beevor.
10. If you really want to save the elephants, farm them (Guardian)
The war on ivory, like the war on drugs, intensifies demand, writes Simon Jenkins. Legalise the trade and breed the animals for their tusks.
If music is the food of love, here's your buffet and recipe book. Sam Ritchie from Sam & the Womp and Jerry David DeCicca talk to Yo Zushi in an effort to pin down what makes a great Valentine's lyric.
If music is the food of love, it works the other way round, too: love is often the food of music. Some years ago, a University of Florida study found that 60 per cent of all song lyrics written in the US took love as the theme. “American culture is in love with love,” said Chad Swiatowicz, who lovingly wrote the report. If anything, I’m surprised the figure isn’t higher. Bob Dylan alone has written or performed 193 songs that include the word “love” in the title or the lyrics, from “Love Is a Four-Letter Word” to “Make You Feel My Love” (recently resurrected/murdered by Adele). I suppose there’s nothing like the all-encompassing drama of love – the longing, the heartbreak, the wonder of it all – to get songwriters writing.
Almost every musician I know has attempted a Valentine’s Day song at some point in their lives. Christmas aside, it seems to be the day of the year most thoroughly explored in music form: from Chet Baker’s stark interpretation of Rodgers and Hart’s 1937 show tune “My Funny Valentine” to Tom Waits’s mournful “Blue Valentines” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Valentine’s Day” (yet another aural heartache).
This year I decided to write one myself but I faltered at what, for me, is usually the first hurdle: the words. To get things going, I stuck my favourite songs in the genre on the stereo: the Replacements’ “Valentine”, Palace Music’s “Valentine’s Day”. On closer listening, though, I found both to be quite emotionally ambivalent, with lyrical overtones that would be inappropriate in a gift for a partner of almost ten years (which mine was going to be). “I’m catatonic... God has made you one face/You must find another,” sings Will Oldham in the latter song. It isn’t quite “Endless Love” by Lionel Richie.
After a few hours of false starts, trying to come up with something useable, I distract myself by recording an unintentionally spooky version of Richie’s “Hello” on the four-track:
But when I sing high, my voice shakes and it sounds weirdly like I’m crying. This gave the end result a stalkerish creepiness (“And I wonder where you are...” etc). In desperation, with time ticking by, I consulted the experts...
Jerry David DeCicca of the Black Swans – whose laconic style has intimacy and emotional distance fist-fighting on a balance beam – tells me that even he has given the Valentine’s Day song a go: “I was a very romantic and dramatic younger man,” he says. I ask him what makes a good one. “It replaces cynicism with sweetness and an open heart and remains smart, soulful and sincere.” DeCicca cites Lou Reed's "I Love You, Suzanne" (“a Valentine's song with muscle”) and Steve Earle's "Valentine's Day" (“It actually sounds like a gift”) as good examples but notes rather regretfully that there were more in the past, “when people weren't so afraid to be corny”.
Sam Ritchie of the chart-topping Sam & the Womp agrees that corniness is nothing to fear. He says that those worried about cliché should either “avoid them or use them in abundance”; his own attempt, he admits, was “meant to be romantic but ended up massively cheesy”. (It was called “Snakebite and Wine”.)
I take this on board over a solitary pint at the pub, staring at the scribbles on my lyrics pad. The balance of what Jerry calls “corny” – a positive quality – and what Sam calls “cheesy” – a negative quality – seems to be crucial (and it reminds me of the toppings on a Papa Del’s Mexican Hot pizza). Later, the music blogger Ross Palmer posits in an email: “You have to earn the right to be a little cheesy.” To him, “A tiny detail in an otherwise dry song is often more moving than something gushing... I don't look for anything different from a Valentine's Day song than any other kind of love song, or any other kind of song more generally.”
All of which reassures me. Ross is right. It’s all just an excuse to be a little more sentimental than usual; to be more open than you might otherwise be. Jerry’s main piece of advice to me is to avoid any “insincerity in your voice”. So I knock out a simple lyric and come up with this:
Happy Valentine’s Day, Zoë!
Jerry David DeCicca’s music: jerrydaviddecicca.com
Ross Palmer blogs at: songsfromsodeep.wordpress.com
The move has been acclaimed as a big step forward, but it was a deliberate and recent policy decision by Facebook to have imposed a gender binary, and the new options still don't give you the chance to write in your own.
Facebook have added a new “custom” gender selector, which is live for users in the United States. This is great news for people who, for a variety of reasons, did not want to pick “male” or “female”. My own friends feed erupted in mild excitement, with several of my friends even switching to the US interface just to see the choice.
Selecting the “custom” option lets you pick from around 50 more pre-defined options, with various combinations of trans*, as well as non-binary options including “agender”, “androgyne”, “bigender”, “gender non-conforming”, “neither”, “neutrois”, and “non-binary”. The choice of which pronouns the site should use to refer to you is also unlocked: this is orthogonal to the gender per se, you get to pick from “he”, “she”, or English’s second-person gender-neutral singular pronoun “they”. You can lock down your specific gender so that only your friends (or subgroups) can see it, but your preferred pronouns are public – presumably for reasons of grammar in messages such as “wish [them] a happy birthday!”
So far, so good. This move has already been acclaimed as a great step forward. But there is a context. It was a deliberate and recent policy decision by Facebook to have imposed a gender binary. Historically Facebook had allowed you to not specify a gender, and the requirement for everyone to pick one of “male” or “female” was introduced only in 2011, presumably to help target Facebook’s highly-gendered advertising.
And this is not and should not be sold as some amazing technical innovation. Despite the fact that computers work in binary, they were never binarist and having three possible values in a database column is just as easy as two. Other social networking sites have kept this feature: Livejournal has a “not specified”/“other” option. If I undust my Google Plus account I find that it has an “other” option, and the ability to privacy-lock the field, a surprisingly progressive policy given their toxic stance on “real names” (i.e. those backed with government-issued ID). Twitter doesn’t ask – its user interface doesn’t need use pronouns – and Myspace has an “Unspecified”. If we go even further back than that, back into the deep old internet, we’ll find the old acronym-bearing proto-social-networking tools known as BBSes, MUDs and MUSHes often supported them – indeed, LambdaMOO was known for popularising the Spivak gender-neutral pronouns (e/em/eir).
Clearly Facebook have made up for lost time in providing people with 50 new genders, a choice that has distracted rather from the core fact that the “them” option is a restoration rather than an innovation. It might be wondered why they do not simply allow free-form text entry here. PinkNews’s piece contains the claim that
To prevent abuse, the new system does not allow people to create their own gender identities, limiting them to a pre-selected list
which is curious given that religion and politics fields already allow the entry of arbitrary text. And although 50 looks like a big number, the choices are broad but not exhaustive and are Western-oriented – for example, there is no entry for hijra, now recognised by the Bangladeshi bureaucracy as a third gender. I will be interested to see how this feature rolls out through the various different language interfaces, particularly those – like French – where no gender-neutral pronouns exist. If I pick “they”, what will my French friends see?
Despite my cynicism and an apparent cultural bias (which I’m sure will be swiftly rectified now it has been pointed out) this is actually a pretty good implementation. It’s set a high bar for other social networking sites, and nobody else entering the field has any excuse to do anything less than a Male/Female/Unspecified/Other selection.
The constitutional transformation promised by the coalition in 2010 has entirely failed to materialise.
When David Cameron became prime minister in 2010, he promised to pursue "a new politics" of democracy and transparency, aimed at removing the stain left by the expenses scandal. A major feature of this would be constitutional reform. The Coalition Agreement committed the government to introducing a new power of recall, allowing voters to force a by-election when an MP was found to have engaged in "serious wrongdoing" (provided at least 10% of constituents signed a petition), to funding 200 open primaries, targeted at seats which had not changed hands for decades, to creating a "wholly or mainly elected upper chamber on the basis of proportional representation", and to introducing directly elected mayors in the 12 largest English cities.
Nearly four years on, not one of these promises has been met. The independent-mindedness of Tory MP Sarah Wollaston, selected by an open primary in Totnes in 2009, convinced Cameron to strangle the idea at birth; his recalcitrant backbenchers blocked House of Lords reform, and just one English city (Bristol) voted to create a directly-elected mayor after a notable failure by the PM to sell the benefits of the policy to the public. Now, as today's Independent reports, he has abandoned plans to introduce a power of recall for MPs, despite promising to do so in both the Conservative manifesto and the Coalition Agreement. As Lib Dem party president Tim Farron said on Today this morning, there is no "good excuse" for this volte-face. The most likely explanation appears to be that it would serve as a distraction from the Tories' core agenda (one of Lynton Crosby's "barnacles") and harm Cameron's standing among those MPs in danger of falling victim to democracy.
The 2010 Conservative manifesto said:
Our People Power manifesto will give local people the direct power to recall MPs found guilty of wrongdoing without having to wait for a General Election. Conservatives will empower local people to cast a vote of no confidence in their elected representative and bring an end to the concept of the ‘safe seat’. This proposal will make MPs directly answerable to their constituents over the whole of a Parliament – not just every five years.
How the Right to Recall process will work:
The recall process will begin with the filling of a notice-of-intent-to-recall petition, to be signed by at least 100 constituents and submitted to the local returning officer.
Once registered, a recall petition can be circulated within the constituency, petitions for the recall of MPs must accumulate signatures equal to 10 per cent of the local electorate
Any petition that crosses the signature threshold within 90 days would trigger a by-election.
But as Farron commented, "the Conservatives appear to want to be protected from the electorate. It is about self-preservation. It sends a message to the electorate that ‘we don’t trust you. We think you might do things which we don’t like’. The only reason for blocking this is a lack of genuine commitment to democracy and a lack of trust in the electorate."
Whatever ambition Cameron once had to be a tranformative prime minister, capable of restoring trust in the political system, is now unambiguously dead. And, as in the case of his crude abandonment of environmentalism, you are left to ask: did he ever believe in it to begin with?
Jesse Bering's new book, Perv, puts forward a rigidly harm-reduction approach to sexual morality (although at times his theories seem to be proposing the normalisation of child abuse images). But tolerance alone isn't enough. Shouldn't wanting to be free to have thoughts and feelings about sex be a positive thing?
We’ve come a long way, baby. I’m just three-and-a-bit decades old, and in my lifetime, relationships that would have once been a source of shame, secrecy and disgust have been brought into the light. Actually, “brought” is the wrong word, much too passive: gay rights have been kicked and shoved and scrapped into public acceptance by the hard, brave work of campaigners. Dangers and stigmas are still being undone, and depending on faith and background, some lives are considerably harder than others. But over all? Things have got better.
Sometimes we talk about the world we live in now as one of equality. I’ll come back to that word in a bit. More often, we talk about tolerance, which is in many ways a rather disappointing virtue. Tolerance doesn’t necessarily ask you to embrace anyone else or to extend your imagination in sympathy with their feelings. Tolerance can be accomplished purely by omission, by deciding that something is none of your business. And most of what any of us get up to in (or out of) bed is of course none of anyone else’s business. But there’s an ethical oddity in what should be an obvious good – the right of people to live and love in honesty and fairness – being conceived not as a positive thing, but as the negation of judgment.
It seems to me sometimes that the only thing left to disapprove of when it comes to sex is having an opinion. From dreams of hog-tied rootings to sex urinals to eroticised racism, everything gets a nudge, a wink and a gentle handwave. Who has time to interrogate their libido when they could be coming? And isn’t a regular orgasm every person’s birthright, however they get there? In his new book, Perv, Jesse Bering is something of an extremist in these matters but his rigidly harm-reduction approach to sexual morality isn’t out of step with the general thinking of the times. Bering makes a plea for a “new value system [...] constructed of the brick and mortar of established scientific facts, its bedrock being the incontrovertible truth that sexual orientations are never chosen.”
And by sexual orientations, Bering doesn’t just mean the sex you’re attracted to or your predilection for one partner at a time or several concurrently: he includes the species that stirs you and the age group. Bering’s tolerant case includes erotic rights for zoophiles and peadophiles too. Not, I hurriedly add, that Bering thinks there’s any reduced-harm way for the prepubescent fancier to consummate his desire. (And the paedophile is almost exclusively a him: even in the rare cases where women are convicted of sexual crimes against children, they tend not to have been directed by their own fantasies but by those of a manipulative man.) But Bering does suggest that paedophiles should have access to imagery that will bring them sexual pleasure, and that such images could have a cathartic effect that would forestall rape.
Bering calls this “the ‘medical’ procurement of child porn in an effort to reduce harm to children”. I wouldn’t: I’d call it the normalisation of child abuse images, and even if it does help the morally squeamish paedophile to restrain himself in man-on-infant situations, it also tells those of any “orientation” but no scruples that children are a legitimate place to point their dick. (In order to recruit compassion for the paedophile, Bering points to studies that say at least half of all child molesters aren’t even primarily attracted to children, but just use infants as an available surrogate. I’d say that’s a community that could do without any "medical" encouragement.)
Maybe “born this way” isn’t a comprehensive argument in favour of every possible manner of getting your rocks off. In fact, I think that Bering probably vastly underestimates the plasticity of human desire. It’s true that very few get to decide individually what our orientation is. But orientation is fixed within the man-made environment of society. That’s not just true for paedophilia, but for all the kinks and fetishes that Bering writes of. And in a society where domination is the rule, is it any great surprise that you find people making spunky lemonade from oppressive lemons and finding their pleasure in either subjugating or being subjugated?
Here’s a radical thought – and I’m not judging anyone (of course not), just suggesting that people might try applying their own judgment to their own desires: if your idea of what is sexy circles unendingly around the pain, humiliation and control of someone (even if that someone is yourself), maybe, possibly, there’s something wrong with your idea of what is sexy.
And maybe, possibly the problem with your idea of what’s sexy has come about because you’ve been formed by a world where the archetype of sex is men having control over women. I’m not saying we can’t have our consensually produced, ethically manufactured spunky lemonade. I’m just saying, let’s have a careful sniff before we down it.
Sex is biological, but how sexuality is understood and expressed is part of culture, and culture is something we constantly make and remake. Imagine if that culture was one of real equality; one where men and women, women and women, men and men could create sexual relationships that weren’t about power and control, but about intimacy, sympathy and feeling for each other with their whole body. I feel ludicrous simply suggesting this, because power and sex seem so entwined: even in vanilla sex, there’s a frisson over who’s on top and who is underneath. But the very absurdity of this idea of equal sex shows how politicised sex really is, and what those politics are.
Sex is not a neutral zone. Perhaps it’s not enough for our sexualities to be “tolerable”: why don’t we want to have good sex, in every sense?
The weather has always been a topic of concern for us Brits, yet we seem powerless when it comes to preparing for it.
2013 was a year of technology-fuelled outages and cyber attacks. It seemed that each week I found myself reading about the continued threats to digital infrastructure. The O2 and Hotmail outages immediately spring to mind. Now we are barely into 2014 and once again we’re seeing businesses facing disruption, though this time from a less sophisticated source, the British weather.
Flooding has dominated our news in the past few days. While there is no official figure of the total number of evacuations, some areas have seen large-scale clear outs of both homes and businesses in the area surrounding the River Thames. In the past 48 hours we at SunGard have supported a major business relocate their entire team to our recovery centre, and we are dealing with ongoing support and enquiries around how businesses can protect themselves from the floods or take the necessary steps to relocate, particularly in the Thames Valley area, which is becoming increasingly flooded.
The weather has always been a topic of concern for us Brits, yet we seem powerless when it comes to preparing for it. The government has been criticised for its lack of a coherent and consistent strategy when it comes to dealing with the floods, with discussions calling for responsibility to be taken. However, the government’s strategy is likely to be long term and is unlikely to be widespread across the UK, particularly as different regions are affected during different weather patterns, so we need a more immediate fix.
For businesses facing any risk of flood at all, ensuring service availability continues and employees remain safe are key priorities over the next few weeks.
Since 1995 at SunGard Availability Services we have handled numerous flood related incidents. One particular incident in 2007 resulted in one of our customers working out of our facilities for 17 days. Flood waters engulfed the ground floor of two of its office buildings, but we were able to move their 50 contact centre staff to one of our near-by facilities overnight, which meant minimum downtime. In fact, their call centre productivity, which handled 7000 calls per day, dropped just 2 per cent. Without a smooth plan in place, this law firm would have been in a very different position and the potential financial and ongoing reputation implications could have been catastrophic.
In today’s connected world, customers and partners expect responses instantly – no matter what your local situation is - and if one part of your process or even your wider supply chain is hindered by the impact of flooding, it could be a number of months, or even years before that relationship is re-established. Even for businesses not based in the area, there could be knock-on effects if you regularly rely on services from affected places.
At this moment in time there are various things that businesses and employees can be looking at to ensure the availability of resources and services. Accessibility to both data and the office are crucial here: how do your employees get in to work, will transport links be impacted or can suppliers and partners still meet expectations?
Firms should be careful, however, not to rely too heavily on remote working technologies; disruptions to local power or communications infrastructure, when severe enough, can compromise plans to work from home. Businesses can also consider alternative working facilities within the surrounding area and further afield.
And perhaps most crucially, businesses should ensure that their data is secure and backed up. Damage to physical infrastructure can in most cases be recovered, the same can’t always be said for crucial customer and business data. Recalling one instance where we worked with Irwin Mitchell solicitors following a flood, while their physical infrastructure incurred £2m worth of damage, the firm was able to maintain near normal levels of service.
While the British weather will never cease to disrupt our lives, as employees, employers and even suppliers we need to plan for the most severe eventuality, come rain or shine.
To say this is not a book based on V S Naipaul is taking the mickey.
The Last Word
Faber & Faber, 286pp, £18.99
Hanif Kureishi’s new novel has attracted a great deal of pre-publication notice, not because it’s a new novel by Hanif Kureishi (whose recent work has, in truth, not been particularly newsworthy) but because the story revolves around a young writer commissioned to compile the autobiography of a crotchety and celebrated literary elder. The relationship between the two men closely mirrors that between V S Naipaul and Patrick French, whose 2008 authorised biography of the Nobel laureate, The World Is What it Is, was remarkable for its unflattering candour.
Kureishi’s grandee, Mamoon, is an Indian-born novelist turned English country gent with “a wide chest, goatee beard, black eyes” who is notorious for his brusqueness, his flamboyantly protective younger wife, his right-wingery and his uncompromising views on foreigners – despite being one himself. His first success as a writer is with “an amusing and well observed novel about his father”. Mamoon’s biographer, Harry, has written a biography of Nehru.
V S Naipaul, meanwhile, is a Trinidadian Indian with a wide chest, goatee beard, black eyes and so on. His first successful book was A House for Mr Biswas, a novel about his father. Patrick French has written about the founders of Indian independence. Although the similarities between Mamoon and Naipaul are too abundant to catalogue, Kureishi has claimed that his novel is not based on real people – which tips disingenuousness into taking the mickey.
Where once biography was a simple two-up two-down, it has these days been extended into a house of many mansions, and The Last Word could be seen as just the latest addition. To think of it, though, as an exercise in postmodernism or even as a roman-à-clef would be misleading: however many attributes Mamoon shares with Naipaul and however much the relationship between biographer and subject borrows from real life, the book is a fully imaginative endeavour.
So, in the fictional world, Mamoon needs money. His second wife, Liana, has expensive tastes and yearns for a flat in London as well as their pile in Somerset. Liana, an opera buffa figure with more than a hint of Nancy Dell’Olio about her, does not understand that a grand literary reputation does not mean equally lofty sales figures. Mamoon is “the sort of writer of whom people asked ‘Is he still alive do you know?”’. A biography offers the chance to confirm his continuing existence, shape his legacy and, above all, whip up interest in his books.
For Harry, “a nerdy connoisseur of sentences” who is nevertheless irresistible to women, Mamoon represents both a career-defining opportunity and a fraught one. As his publisher, Rob Deveraux (a boorish drunkard whose depiction must have elicited some nervous laughter in the Faber offices), puts it, if Harry doesn’t do a good job “you’ll be so fucked up you’ll have to get work as an academic”.
When Harry goes to stay with his subject in the country he finds himself beleaguered. He can hardly get Mamoon to talk to him (“You’re in the remembering business while I’m in the forgetting game”, Mamoon points out) while Liana flits between hectoring, flirting and neediness. Harry has to mine his material from the diaries of Mamoon’s callously treated first wife, Peggy (op cit Naipaul’s first wife, Patricia) and a later Colombian lover Marion (ibid Margaret Murray) with whom Mamoon had an unconventional sex life. To take his mind off his work, Harry has his fiancée, Alice, and Julia, a chav with a heart of gold who helps around the house.
The mystery in this country-house set-up is the game of cat and mouse between Mamoon and Harry, which Kureishi lays out with great aplomb. Who is really the subject and who the writer here? This is a novel conducted in dialogue and Mamoon gets the best lines, not least about writing itself: “Only women or poofs write now – otherwise, these days, no sooner has someone been sodomised by a close relative than they think they can write a memoir.” There are numerous instances when you sense Kureishi is using Mamoon to say the things he would really like to say in his own voice.
This verbal jousting, which eventually leads to a half-twist, takes the place of plot – drama is limited to Mamoon beating Harry about the head with a walking stick. Writing for both Mamoon and Harry – and presumably Kureishi, too – is a visceral business and the patter between all the characters has a sharp edge. It is not so visceral, however, that Kureishi forgets to be thoroughly entertaining or steer his conversations with great variety and skill. Biography, as he notes, “is a process of disillusionment”; fiction though, as he shows here, can be every bit as perceptive but also much funnier.
Britain's muted but certain recovery is bad news for Alex Salmond. David Cameron seems to have learned from the Scottish First Minister, appealing to the heart, not the head.
“Good morning. My name is Jackie and I am from Legacy here at the Olympic Park...” This was probably a well-worn joke, accessible to those who liked the spoof Olympic sitcom 2012 and that sort of thing, but Jackie couldn’t have done more to lighten the mood as she conjured up in our minds a speech by the lady from Sustainability, and an extended coach ride that took us from Stratford International station to the Olympic Park, via Wembley Stadium.
Disturbingly, it was true. She was from Legacy, and she began to explain the regeneration programme. Happily, it created enough of a distraction to allow for initial conversations. I introduced myself to the lady sitting next to me, called Olga it turned out, who informed me she was the CEO of a medical imaging firm. “Why are you here?” I asked. “I do not know,” she replied in a faintly Eastern European accent. “Why are you here?” she retorted. “I don’t know,” I shrugged. After this verbal mirroring finished we determined to stick together in case everyone else knew why they were there.
We needn’t have. Even Paralympian Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson and Dame Tessa Jowell looked slightly wide-eyed at their inclusion (understandably in Tessa’s case – she had had to endure the ranting of the historian David Starkey the night before as a fellow panelist on Question Time), despite the fact that they had more right than others to be at the venue, but weren’t necessarily connected to what was about to be said.
In a sense, I had a connection with the content (namely a couple of articles I’ve written for the New Statesman website on the subject, with the predictable quotidian abuse for doing so) but not the venue. In PR terms maybe we were, collectively, engaged in a piece of cosmic cancellation that rendered the audience almost entirely neutral.
I had already heard at 6:30am on Radio 4 “that the Prime Minister, David Cameron, will be saying later today at the Olympic Velodrome that the people of England, Wales and Northern Ireland should be emailing, texting and telling their Scottish friends to vote to stay in the Union on 18th September...” so I was simultaneously miffed and relaxed about being bussed in as a member of a well-dressed group of extras. To my surprise, Olga, an expert in image analysis, hadn’t clocked that we should be more interested in analysing the image, rather than the content.
Because, as it turned out, and for no other reason than coincidence, the Prime Minister did attempt something that I had urged in a recent New Statesman article – to avoid the technical arguments on Scottish independence, and appeal to the emotions. The “Better Together” campaign appeals (like its spokesman, Alistair Darling) to the mind, while Alex Salmond, leader of the SNP – who doesn’t have the fig leaf of a thought-through policy or a contingency plan to cover his political ambitions – appeals to the heart.
David Cameron’s intervention was specifically designed to redress that balance. And it was a lesson in public speech-making; admittedly sometimes too insistent, sometimes a little too red-faced in delivery, sometimes a little too anecdotal and sometimes veering towards making the case for independence (the list of Scottish cultural and business successes was impressive), but always, and this is something that really cannot be doubted, an enunciation of a personal desire to see the union stay together because he genuinely believes only chaos and diminution lie ahead should Scotland vote “Yes” to independence.
Salmond’s response was unsurprisingly aggressive – he even contrived to use the phrase I predicted for him when he said “game on” during an interview on the BBC One O’Clock News. With Salmond, it really is like waiving a stick in front of a dog when it comes to the points of view of others, especially if you are English, a Prime Minister and called David Cameron. Each and every piece of opposition has to be stamped upon as though he and the SNP are creating an informational version of a Celtic North Korea. But he failed to land a killer blow, even missing the obvious “on yer bike” line for choosing the velodrome as the venue for the speech.
The economic situation of the UK is unlikely to help Salmond in the coming months; there is little to knock the UK off course from its muted recovery, with signs that a new credit cycle is starting while unemployment is falling, and demand for graduates is increasing. These are all things that lead people to desire to maintain the status quo. And since few people know about – or are sufficiently interested in – the niceties of sovereign credit ratings, single currencies or the need for new over-arching institutions to police an independent Scotland, Cameron’s appeal to the heart is a welcome addition to the technocratic angle. It couldn’t have come out any clearer if you’d passed the whole thing through one of Olga’s award-winning image processing algorithms.
The Adult Skills Budget, which funds all non-academic education for those 19 or over, is being cut by a fifth between now and 2015-16. The least we can do is pay attention.
Imagine that, one morning, Michael Gove cheerily announced that he was cutting a fifth of all funding to schools. Imagine the outcry. Imagine the angry articles, the protest marches, the endless, abysmal stock photography of kids standing outside locked school gates and crying.
I’m sure that you can picture all that, and that you’re salivating at the prospect even now, but it’s all irrelevant because you and I both know that, short of a full-on, Greece-style meltdown, it’s never going to happen. Schools may find themselves squeezed but their funding is, basically, safe. They’re too important. We care too much.
Now consider the fact that, on Tuesday, the government actually did cut 20 per cent from an education budget. The Adult Skills Budget funds, essentially, all non-academic education for those 19 or over: everything from apprenticeships to college courses to skills training for the unemployed. This week, it emerged that it’s being hacked back by £460m between now and 2015-16.
This time, though, there’s been no angry media commentary; protest marches have been conspicuous by their absence. In fact, David Hughes, the chief executive of adult learning charity NIACE, told the TES (one of the few publications to report any of this) that the settlement “could have been worse”.
If Hughes seems blasé about the kind of cut that, four years into austerity, would make most bits of the public sector squeal like a donkey, it’s probably because he’s used to it. Further education (FE) gets repeatedly and painfully stiffed – and that pain is shared pretty evenly between privately-owned training firms and your friendly neighbourhood FE college.
In case you’ve missed them, which you probably have, here are some of the other challenges facing the world of further education.
Its funding is terrible.
According to figures compiled by the Association of Colleges (AoC), average per student funding in higher education is around £8,500; in schools, it’s £5,600. In FE, though, it’s £4,000 for 16-17 year olds, and just £3,800 for those 18 and over. Some of these teenagers are doing the exact same qualifications as their mates down the road at the school sixth-form: colleges just don’t get as much money to teach them.
Its funding is getting worse.
School revenue budgets have largely been protected from austerity; university funding has been slashed, but the resulting hole has been filled with student fees (paid for with loans from, oh look, the government). The FE budget, though, has been raided repeatedly. In 2010 it was cut by £1.1bn, or a whole 25 per cent. In June 2013, another £260m went. This meant that the adult skills budget had been cut by a whole third since the last election; still, the AoC described the second cut as “not as dire as anticipated”.
Its buildings are crumbling.
Labour’s Building Colleges for the Future programme imploded in 2010, when it turned out that the quango responsible had agreed to fund projects worth (this is a good bit) £5.7bn more than it could actually pay for. The coalition has generously offered an extra £550m to help sort things out, but this is pennies when compared to the actual scale of the need, and colleges with ambitious building projects have generally been forced to seek private finance.
From 2015, though, those seeking capital funding have been told they can talk to the Local Enterprise Partnerships between councils and business about getting a share of the new Single Local Growth Fund. In doing so, though, they’ll be competing with every other college in the area, as well as anyone else who wants to provide vocational training. This will obviously sort everything out.
It’s dealing with problems schools have failed to solve.
Following the 2011 Wolf Report, FE colleges are required to ensure that every student who doesn’t have grade C or above in their English and Maths GCSEs has another chance to get one: that means recruiting a lot of extra teachers, who may or may not exist. So to make sure colleges are properly motivated, the government has told them that, for every student without the grades who isn’t taking such classes, they won’t receive any funding. Not a single penny. Colleges are effectively being told to deal with schools’ failure on pain of poverty.
Getting the picture, yet? Ministers may inflict all sorts of wheezes on schools and universities, privatising their funding, being mean about their workforces, handing their back office services over to any passing outsourcing firm. But at least they grasp that they’re important. At least they think that they matter.
Further education, though? Short of a few quid? Need to find some easy savings? Just nick it from the budget of the nearest FE college. Who’s gonna care?
I have a theory about why this might be, but I don’t like it, because it says, basically, that it’s all my fault. The reason, I think, that FE colleges are an easy target is because the British chattering classes – the media, the politicos, the wonks, and the sort of people who read broadsheet newspapers – don’t understand them.
And the reason for that is that we didn’t attend them. If you find yourself caring about education policy for a living, then there’s a fair old chance you did A-levels and then went off and did a degree. You know what a school looks like. You know what a university is. Those things you instinctively get.
FE colleges, though, don’t fit into this nice, easily-grasped structure. Most offer a dizzying array of different courses, for a huge range of students: academic ones, vocational ones, basic skills for those who struggled in school, bits of apprenticeships, bits of professional training, and the odd bit of night school for anyone who happens to want it. The acronyms alone are enough to make your eyes glaze over. So, we ignore them. And nobody much seems to care.
Thing is, though, an estimated three million people study in FE colleges in any given year: one in 20 of the entire population. And if there’s a link between skills and growth, as everyone and their dog thinks there is, then it might conceivably be a good idea to start taking an interest in the bodies that do most of the up-skilling.
The 1944 education reforms that introduced secondary moderns and grammar schools were also intended to create a third type of establishment: technical schools, providing vocational skills training on the German model. But these mostly failed to materialise, in large part because the middle classes didn’t want their kids to do vocational subjects. That same bourgeois indifference is now allowing the government to repeatedly slash a major part of the country’s education system, without inspiring the slightest murmur.
I’m not saying we can easily fix this. But the least we can do is pay attention to those cuts. I’m game if you are.
Belgium has lifted all age restrictions on euthanasia, despite concerns that the legislation has been rushed through.
Yesterday, Belgian lawmakers voted 86-44 to extend the country’s euthanasia laws to children, with no age limit. The new law will mean that voluntary euthanasia will be open to children suffering from terminal illness, who are near death and in constant and unbearable pain, provided they are deemed psychologically capable of making the decision, and their parents or legal representatives, as well as a team of medical experts agree.
Euthanasia has been legal for adults in Belgium since 2002, and in its neighbour, The Netherlands, euthanasia is legal for children over 12. Belgium will be the first country to lift all age restrictions – although presumably the requirement that a child is deemed by experts to be capable of making the decision will restrict euthanasia for very young children. Nevertheless, this feels like a huge, and potentially dangerous, step.
There are several grounds on which you can oppose voluntary euthanasia. You can disagree with it fundamentally and on moral grounds – an argument that those who approve of voluntary euthanasia in principle will find very hard to refute. The best I can offer is that while it is a terrible thought, and a difficult one to imagine, faced with the prospect of being terminally ill, in endless pain and with no hope of any improvement in the quality of my life, I believe I’d like to be given the option of determining the manner and timing of my own death.
Then there are practical grounds for opposing euthanasia – mainly centred on the fear that the security checks and psychological tests are not rigorous enough. There’s a concern that the terminally ill or the severely disabled will feel pressurised into requesting euthanasia, perhaps because they feel they are a burden, or that euthanasia will be granted to those who are mentally unwell.
Finally there’s the “slippery slope” argument, that there’s something wrong with a society that signs up to voluntary euthanasia and that it will open the door to other, much less palatable practices, including involuntary euthanasia. The best guard against the slippery slope argument is strong, continued scrutiny of euthanasia laws, which brings me to my next point.
When it comes to extending Belgium's euthanasia laws to children, my biggest concern is practical. Will children come under pressure from their parents to agree to euthanasia, because their parents can’t bear to see them suffer? How do you ask an ill child if they want medical help to die? At what age will psychologists determine that a child is capable of deciding whether or not they want assistance to die? Some doctors in Belgium have argued that there was no need to rush through this new law, and that the guidelines for assessing a child’s ability to make the decision were still to ill-defined. I side with them.
The depth of feeling that exists about the disaster and what came after is entirely understandable. The attorney general has a difficult task ahead deciding what consititutes contempt of court in this unique circumstance.
Twenty-five years ago this April 96 football fans went to a match and never came home.
Next month a coroner will begin another inquest into the deaths of the Liverpool fans at Hillsborough to try to find out what happened. This has been a long, long time coming.
The campaign for another investigation into what happened back in April 1989 and the announcement of a second inquest has naturally attracted a great deal of attention and substantial preparations have been made to accommodate families and other interested parties at the hearing which is due to start on 31 March.
There will also be a great deal of media attention – in the mainstream, online and on social media.
The coroner, Lord Justice Goldring, who was specially-appointed to conduct this hearing, has been giving the issue to the ensuing publicity come thought and voiced his concerns this week with a warning on the Hillsborough Inquest website.
The Inquests are shortly to begin. The case will be heard by a jury. They must decide it solely on the evidence they hear in court. It is of fundamental importance that the proceedings are reported accurately and in a balanced way. Nothing (whether by way of comment or otherwise) should be published (including by way of online commentary or social networking sites) which could run the risk of prejudicing the outcome of the proceedings.
The Coroner has the power to refer anything published to the Attorney General if, in his view, it may amount to a contempt of court.
The aim of this warning is entirely understandable. This is one of those relatively rare inquest hearings that have a jury, and while coroners sitting alone can be expected to ignore what they see in the media, jurors are felt to be more vulnerable to prejudicial material.
It is also interesting to see the notice make particular reference to social networking. Those of us who have made a career of reporting the courts can gawp in amazement at the coach and horses Twitter users drive through contempt, libel, and sexual offence anonymity on a regular basis.
Even if they know the law, and many do not, they think it does not apply to something as seemingly superficial as a Tweet or a Facebook post. The courts do not agree.
But I see trouble ahead. As a reporter in the north-west, latterly for the Liverpool Daily Post, I covered the Hillsborough disaster, its aftermath and the long campaign by victims’ families. I know well the depth of feeling that exists in that city about the disaster and what came after.
This inquest will, naturally, provoke emotional reactions among some of those affected, which they may choose to express on social networks. Those expressions may never amount to a contempt of court, but what if they do?
If some such message is referred to the Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, who has the say on whether contempt proceedings are taken, he will be in a very unenviable position.
So, while the warning is understandable, it is to be hoped that those organising the inquest will take suitable steps to help the jury avoid any prejudicial material.
The usual warning from a judge not to do internet research, not to read social media postings about a hearing needs to be supplemented. Jurors need to be taught how to screen out subjects – it is relatively easy to do and would avoid putting temptation in their path.
So as well as issuing warnings to those who might commit contempt, offering a guiding hand to jurors to avoid its impact would be a sensible move.