Articles on this Page
- 02/20/14--03:46: _The uses and abuses...
- 02/20/14--03:47: _Feng Xiaogang: the ...
- 02/20/14--03:50: _20 years after his ...
- 02/20/14--03:54: _What happens to Sco...
- 02/20/14--03:58: _Let’s not pretend: ...
- 02/20/14--05:28: _Labour needs to go ...
- 02/20/14--06:19: _Kevin Pietersen: th...
- 02/20/14--06:19: _Xenophobia from the...
- 02/20/14--06:45: _Your emoticon addic...
- 02/20/14--07:38: _Even as a Blairite,...
- 02/20/14--09:14: _The Returning Offic...
- 02/20/14--10:52: _Ministers can no lo...
- 02/20/14--23:26: _Morning Call: pick ...
- 02/21/14--00:39: _Could flood prevent...
- 02/21/14--01:30: _In the Frame: The M...
- 02/21/14--01:53: _All work, all play:...
- 02/21/14--02:45: _Watch: Philip Hammo...
- 02/21/14--02:45: _Why we must destroy...
- 02/21/14--04:04: _To solve the living...
- 02/21/14--04:06: _The President of Ka...
- 02/20/14--03:46: The uses and abuses of intersectionality
- 02/20/14--03:47: Feng Xiaogang: the Chinese Spielberg
- 02/20/14--03:50: 20 years after his death, we still know so little of Derek Jarman
- 02/20/14--03:54: What happens to Scottish MPs if Scotland votes Yes?
- 02/20/14--03:58: Let’s not pretend: David Bowie’s Brit Award was for being alive
- 02/20/14--05:28: Labour needs to go much further to give real meaning to devolution
- 02/20/14--06:19: Kevin Pietersen: the man who fell to earth
- 02/20/14--06:45: Your emoticon addiction may actually make people like you more
- 02/20/14--07:38: Even as a Blairite, I'm tired of defending Blair
- 02/20/14--09:14: The Returning Officer: Mid Antrim
- 02/20/14--23:26: Morning Call: pick of the papers
- 02/21/14--01:30: In the Frame: The Myth of Climate Change – 2014 Edition
- 02/21/14--01:53: All work, all play: the art of videogame writing
- 02/21/14--02:45: Why we must destroy the myth of miscarriage as women's “failure”
- 02/21/14--04:06: The President of Kazakhstan suggests his country should be renamed
If there's one thing I've learned about feminism, it's that we should all try to be better; but we should also acknowledge that perfection is impossible.
Intersectionality! Boo! Are you scared yet? Are you already edging your cursor towards another browser tab (possibly to check whether I'm getting flamed for this on Twitter yet, or people are merely shaking their damn heads)?
Don't. I've read Julie Burchill's piece in the Spectator, and I'm not here to double down on it. With respect to the ardent feminists at the Spec (I mean, Fraser Nelson is basically Harriet Harman with a Scottishish accent), I'm not sure they ever intended her essay as a Glorious Moment in the advancement of Wimmin's Rights. Rather, I believe they were participating in one of their favourite pastimes: winding up the Left.
So, here I am, underneath the bait, steadfastly not rising to it. But when I saw Burchill's piece, I realise that I thought: god, I had better not talk about this in public, or even acknowledge that I have read it. Then I thought: wait, what? In the last year or so, it feels like intersectionality has become a subject that it is too painful to talk about online, too mired in grievance and counter-grievance. And that serves no one: when an issue becomes toxic like this, the only people willing to talk about it are the dogmatists at either end of the spectrum, and the attention-seekers. (What does Katie Hopkins think about this? Only time will tell.) There is no room for the interested onlooker, the apathetic do-gooder, or the plain old undecided and unsure.*
And the funny thing is, that the more I read about intersectionality, the more interesting and useful I find it. But the more I notice its limitations.
First, its usefulness. The original description of the term comes from this 1989 paper by the law scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw. In it, she describes how black women laid off by a car manufacturing company were not permitted to bring an unfair dismissal lawsuit - because "black women" were not recognised as a class which could suffer discrimination. They could bring a lawsuit based on race discrimination, or gender discrimination, but not a combination of the two.
Crenshaw concluded that "feminism must include an analysis of race if it hopes to express the aspirations of non-white women". Two years later, she developed the theory in relation to domestic violence shelters, describing the case of a woman who was not admitted to one because her spoken English was not deemed to be of a high enough standard. In that situation, both the woman's gender and her race were contributing to the situation she faced; the challenges of one could not be solved without dealing with the other.
Two final examples from Crenshaw. In this interview, she talks about the double bind that black women face, at the "intersection" of two types of discrimination.
"I have a story I tell a lot. A member of our study group at Harvard was the first African-American member of a previously exclusive white club. He invited the rest of the group - me and another African-American man - to visit him at this club. When we knocked on the door, he opened it, stepped outside, and shut it quickly. He said that he was embarrassed because he had forgotten to tell us something about entering the building. My male friend immediately bristled, saying that if black people couldn't go through the front door, we weren't coming in at all. But our friend said, "No, no, no, that's not it - but women have to go through the back door." And my friend was totally okay with that.
I understand that we can all stand together as long as we think that we are all equally affected by a particular discrimination, but the moment where a different barrier affects a subset of us, our solidarity often falls apart."
She then tells the story of Harvard's attempts to recruit more women and ethnic minorities: "the school responded with two committees. One was a gender committee that studied women candidates; the other was a committee that studied candidates of colour. Not too surprisingly, women of colour seemed to fall through the cracks."
That quote came back to me last week when I was writing about all-women shortlists. Diane Abbott criticised these for being "all white women shortlists", and as a blog we'll be publishing soon from Orchid Vishkaiy will show, she has a point. Until 2005, not a single black or Asian women was elected on an AWS. Only 1 per cent of Parliament is both non-white and female. The "double bind" described by Crenshaw is alive and kicking in Britain today. And more broadly, questions of intersectionality should inform all aspects of feminist campaigning. Are you holding your meeting in a room which isn't accessible to wheelchairs? Congratulations, you just founded an all able-bodied feminist campaign group by default.
But . . . . (deep breath, I'm going in) this approach is not without its problems. Because people are not perfect, and they do not have unlimited time and resources. I've given the example of disability, because I think most people would agree that obviously any public meeting should be accessible to wheelchairs. But what about the deaf? The blind? Should a group of feminists starting their own meet-up in a university hall enlist someone proficient a sign-language in case that's needed? Should they print their leaflets in braille?
In the real world, people would apply some common sense (I hope). They would probably generally signal their commitment to accessibility then if a deaf or blind person contacted them, they would do everything they possibly could to ensure that they were included. Equally well, a group of deaf feminists might decide that it's better for them to form a group of their own, and sign together at meetings.
On the internet, this spit-and-sawdust, muck-in-and-do-your-best approach rarely materialises. Instead, it's more likely that first, a problem is diagnosed, perhaps even in the abstract rather than by anyone actually affected; and second, the feminists involved in setting up the event are personally decried as over-privileged whateverphobes. Behind a screen rather than face-to-face, there is little acknowledgement of the idea that organisation is hard, and its results always imperfect; it's always easier to throw bottles from the back (as a journalist, I speak from some experience on this score).
The more I think and write about feminism, the more the idea of perfection comes to mind. The pursuit of perfection is a prison we trap women in; it must be destroyed. Why are we surprised that a prominent feminist doesn't share exactly our views on every single issue? Why is there such a sense of betrayal - and why must she then be cast into the fiery pit, with all her writings on every subject now tainted by that one unpalatable view? Because we still want - demand - of women that they be perfect, in a way which is never expected of men.
Take a male columnist, say Simon Jenkins. He has a range of views, some of which I love, and others that make me want to spit. No one seems to have a problem with that. But if I say the same about Julie Burchill? Then suddenly I am a Bad Feminist, a bogeywoman. Being identified as One Of Those Feminists gives licence to misquote and misrepresent my view on everything; a straw woman is built and I am invited to watch her burn. Of course this deters people from engaging in debates: the only way to be perfect is to be utterly passive.
This is Hilary Mantel's much-misunderstood appraisal of Kate Middleton's public image:
Kate seems to have been selected for her role of princess because she was irreproachable: as painfully thin as anyone could wish, without quirks, without oddities, without the risk of the emergence of character. She appears precision-made, machine-made . . .
Now, I'm absolutely sure that somewhere there is a Kate Middleton who laughs when the dog farts extremely loudly, who calls Prince William some horrendous pet name, who does all the things that women do, no matter how many LK Bennett kitten heels and blow-dries their life involves. But I agree with Mantel that the real person has been carefully hidden behind a mask which looks exactly like Kate Middleton, only glossier and tidier. Perfection is a defence, a withdrawal: think of Nigella Lawson walking into court without a hair out of place.
But it's always a lie. And this is where I come back to intersectionality.
Intersectionality shows us that everyone could do better; that every attempt at rolling back discrimination could work harder and be more inclusive. But it should also remind us that people themselves are more than a simple label: "white feminist"; "middle-class man"; "posh boy"; "Twitter bully". Here are some of the things I know that the kind of feminists regularly decried for their privilege have had to deal with, in private: eating disorder relapses; rape; the stalking of their children; redundancy; clinical depression; the sectioning of a family member; an anxiety disorder that made every train ride and theatre trip an agony. (Yes, one of those descriptions is me.)
None of this is to say that feminism shouldn't be open to criticism. When Caroline Crampton and I got together our bloggers last year for a New Statesman debate about feminism, the response was . . . well, there were two responses. There was criticism that was constructive: for example, the deviously persuasive Karen Ingala Smith managed to parlay her disappointment that we didn't talk enough about rape into making me join the board of her VAWG charity. And there was criticism that was destructive, aimed at wounding us for not representing every possible permutation of womanhood. (I laughed when one particularly enthusiastic deconstructor, when asked: "Well, how can you possibly make a six-person panel totally representative of half of humanity?", came back with, "Oh, that's why I don't believe in panel discussions.")
I'm rambling now, aren't I? This is getting a bit chucking-out-time-at-the-pub (And the thing ish, I wash trying shoh hard...). So I will close by saying: I want my feminism to be more intersectional. I don't think it's a dirty word, although it is not an attractive-sounding one (I say this as someone who said "synergise" yesterday and promptly wanted to die), and it's one that very few people in the population at large even know, let alone understand.
We need more voices, with different experiences of life, and we need to have uncomfortable conversations. (For example, I think that "internet feminism" brutally ignores the problems of older women, who are more likely to live in poverty than men, and who often get landed with caring for their parents in the same way they did the lion's share of the childcare.) And I understand why people feel unhappy at the hand they've been dealt, particularly when I stand up and talk about discrimination with two Aces nestling snugly in my palm. Yes, I'm failing. But you're failing too. Don't be the internet equivalent of the entitled prick who shouts at the call-centre staff, as if it's their fault the wifi doesn't work.
What we will never have is perfection. We're all just trying.
* I am aware there will be people who are angry that a feminist who is white is writing this. If you are such a person, ask yourself: are you also angry I have not written it earlier? Have you ever tweeted about the failures "white feminists" to engage with intersectionality? Then maybe have a cup of tea.
With new cinemas in China popping up at the rate of ten a day, Feng Xiaogang is the Chinese answer to Steven Spielberg: a reliable box office hitter.
Every Chinese New Year, a huge migration takes place. Families reunite, they eat dumplings, they set off firecrackers – and they watch a Feng Xiaogang film. Often dubbed “the Spielberg of China”, Feng has become a national institution. While his early years as a film-maker were defined by family-friendly comedies poking fun at China’s materialistic culture, recently he has turned to weightier, big-budget epics, produced by the Wang brothers, China’s answer to the Weinsteins. With 15 box office triumphs in 20 years, Feng is unquestionably the best-known – and most beloved – director of mainstream cinema in China.
Abroad, he is virtually unknown, despite Donald Sutherland, Adrien Brody and Tim Robbins starring in his films. It’s an oversight that the BFI hopes to address with this month’s retrospective, part of its “Electric Shadows” cultural collaboration with China. And it’s one that the Chinese government, aware of the poor ratings of the country’s films at foreign box offices, hoped to rectify by backing Feng’s Back to 1942 as the country’s official Oscar submission for Best Foreign Language Film this year.
Yet, while the director seems sanguine about the ambivalence of audiences abroad, he has become increasingly fed up with unwanted scrutiny at home. “In the past 20 years, every Chinese director [has] faced a great torment,” Feng said last year at the China Film Directors’ Guild Awards, “and that torment is [bleep].” The censors bleeped out the word “censorship” – no irony intended. His speech went viral. Many declared that, at last, someone had “painted eyes on the dragon”, a phrase used to describe the moment a work or idea takes on a life of its own.
China’s long list of cinematic no-nos (anything from ghosts and Kate Winslet’s boobs to police brutality and corruption) are justified internally by the absence of an age-rating system – adults are, in effect, treated as children. Feng believes that Back to 1942, a film about a devastating famine in Henan in which nearly three million people died, was the best film he could make, given the restrictions: “I would have made it darker, more cruel, if I could have.”
But darkness isn’t an easy sell, with Chinese audiences thirsting for lightweight movies. “Entertainment on its own is just a glass of water with sugar,” says Feng. When Back to 1942 was beaten at the box office by Lost in Thailand, a Hangover-inspired comedy and the highest-grossing movie ever shown in China, Feng took to Weibo (China’s equivalent of Twitter) and wrote: “I am not proud of my nation any more.”
What may have appeared to be professional sour grapes was, Feng insists, a lament for the modern Chinese audience’s unwillingness to confront the realities of their history: “It took me ten years to be able to make this film, because this isn’t what we learned at school. We were always taught we were a great nation. But the more you learn about society and yourself, you can’t be so blindly happy about everything.”
Feng’s artistic ideals seem at odds with his previously unabashed commercialism. During the 1990s, while art-house films struggled to get past the censors and “main-melody” films (those in tune with orthodox socialist ideology) failed to connect with audiences, Feng believed in the market and entertainment. “Business is first, art is second,” he said back then.
It paid off. Feng’s hesui pian or New Year comedies helped start a “back to the cinema” wave that has been growing ever since. When his career began, the Chinese box office took 100 million yuan ($16.5m) a year. It now takes 20 billion yuan ($3.3bn). Last year, it overtook Japan to become the second-largest market in the world. Some estimate that it will surpass the US by 2018; there has been a 30 per cent annual growth in box office takings in the past decade. Cinemas are popping up at the rate of ten a day.
“The Chinese government is always reminding us that there are more and more foreign films being imported and that they are stealing the market,” Feng says. “But because of censorship, we have so many things to consider. Hollywood directors can do what they want. It’s not a fair competition.”
While all films – foreign and domestic – are subject to the same scrutiny in China, the size of the market is irresistible. Max Michael, an American talent agent in China, summed it up: “Where there is money, there’s co-operation.” Although seven of the top-ten highest-grossing Chinese films were homegrown last year, many Hollywood producers are more than happy to tweak or reshoot their films to appease Chinese distributors and secure screen time.
Feng has come full circle with his latest film, Personal Tailor. Like his first hit, Dream Factory (1997), it involves a group of actors who make people’s dreams come true. One of the characters is a successful director who, tired of winning awards such as “Sell-Out Screenplay of the Year”, craves critical recognition over popularity. Personal Tailor generated one of the most lucrative openings in Chinese history.
It is this tension that defines Feng’s career. “I want to make films because I’m interested in the subject, not to make money. I’m past all that now,” he says, before adding: “But you still have to think of the investors and producers. They need to make a profit to keep the market going.”
Feng Xiaogang is in conversation at BFI Southbank, London SE1, on 21 February
The BFI’s “A Century of Chinese Cinema” season starts in June
A facsimile of his only book of poems, A Finger in the Fishes Mouth, and a new book of sketches, thoughts and quotations, brings Jarman's art into fuller and more luminous perspective.
A Finger in the Fishes Mouth
Test Centre, 148pp, £12.99
Derek Jarman’s Sketchbooks
Ed. Stephen Farthing and Ed Webb-Ingall
Thames & Hudson, 256pp, £28
These are two beautiful books, diverse records of an artist who transformed every element of his life into beauty. Indeed, Derek Jarman, who died 20 years ago this week, ended his life with a perfect metaphor of his art by creating a garden in Dungeness in Kent, the only small area of Britain that is geographically classified as desert.
A Finger in the Fishes Mouth is a facsimile edition of the only book of poetry Jarman ever published, at the age of 30 in 1972. He apparently took efforts to destroy all known copies for reasons that are not clear. The poetry is that of a young man who has read deeply in both the Beats and T S Eliot. In Venice, we hear old Tom – “we could see the rain drifting in from the dead Adriatic” – and in Manhattan, Ginsberg: “I have walked through lives littering the east side”.The poems are placed in montage with a series of postcards that expand the text both geographically and historically. The whole effect is both charming and interesting but nobody would claim that the book is more than juvenilia, which is how Jarman described his own poetry.
Derek Jarman’s Sketchbooks brings Jarman and his art into fuller and more luminous perspective. From early on in his life, Jarman kept large, elaborate sketchbooks in which he would pursue his ideas and images. Thoughts or quotations written out in Jarman’s elegant italic hand were juxtaposed with typed pages from the books he was writing and pressed wild flowers. Images from classical painting and tabloid newspapers were placed beside personal photographs or drawings, and all this riot of word and image was arranged with an insouciant care. The process of investigation was itself a thing of beauty.
This collection of sketchbook pages, painstakingly edited and strikingly reproduced, is punctuated by revealing texts by some of Jarman’s closest collaborators, from Tilda Swinton to Neil Tennant, and an acute and informed running commentary provided by Jarman’s partner, Keith Collins. My first and most valuable lesson in film came from Derek, after I had spent three months closeted with lawyers persuading Nicholas Ward-Jackson to give up his ownership of Jarman’s Caravaggio script and thus let the BFI produce the film that Derek had dreamed of for seven years. “What you must remember, Colin,” Jarman said, “is that the finished film is only a by-product. What matters most is that everybody working on it is having fun.” And what fun we had.
In 2004, when Derek had been ten years in his grave, one could have been forgiven for thinking that he had disappeared forever. The loathsome UK Film Council openly boasted that its only policy was “not to make Derek Jarman films” and his work seemed to have been largely forgotten. Ten years on, the Film Council has been abolished, the British Film Institute is mounting a full retrospective of his films and King’s College London is staging a series of events, from an immersive exhibition to a conference on Jarman’s multiple investigations of the Renaissance.
But even all the current attention does not seem fully to take the measure of a man whose talents were so many and multiple and whose engagement with the history of his time so varied and vital. Jarman’s writing, in the series of books that he produced from Dancing Ledge (1984) onwards – part autobiography, part queer manifesto, part reflections on history and politics – may be among the finest English prose ever written (certainly there is little from the 1980s and 1990s to match it).
The films seem to me to have not yet been differentiated out from one another. Sebastiane and Jubilee are essential documents of the social history of the 1970s but it is difficult to claim them as great films. It was only after Jarman was diagnosed HIV-positive in 1986 that he made a series of films – The Last of England, Edward II, Wittgenstein, Blue– that mix politics and philosophy, history and sexuality, form and self in one of the greatest cinematic experiments of all time.
And even with this praise we have perhaps not yet taken the full measure of Jarman. He trained as an artist and in the last years of his life devoted as much time to painting as film-making. Let’s hope the reappraisal of his work continues – in another ten years, perhaps Tate will have a full Jarman retrospective.
Colin MacCabe is executive producer of the Derek Jarman Lab, Birkbeck, University of London.
Image: pages from Derek Jarman's Sketchbooks, courtesy of the Derek Jarman Estate.
Would they be allowed to vote on UK-wide laws? And would they still stand in May 2015?
After months of indifference, Westminster and Fleet Street have finally begun to recognise the significance of this September’s referendum on Scottish independence. Issues such as which currency the putative state would use and whether it would be able to join the EU are now accorded the attention they deserve. But there remains remarkably little discussion of what the political and constitutional consequences of a Yes vote would be.
If Scotland votes for independence on 18 September, the Scottish and UK governments will open negotiations on such matters as how to divide the national debt and North Sea oil revenues, the future location of the UK’s nuclear weapons and the possibility of a currency union. The Scottish National Party aims to reach a final agreement by 24 March 2016 (“independence day”), in time for the Scottish Parliament elections on 5 May 2016.
One issue that would need to be resolved long before then is the status of Westminster’s 59 Scottish MPs following a vote in favour of independence. As the former Conservative MSP Brian Monteith has warned, the UK would face a “constitutional crisis the like of which has never been seen”. The West Lothian question, which disputes the right of Scottish MPs to vote on reserved matters following devolution, would be posed in its most extreme form: should the MPs of a country that will soon secede be allowed to have any say on UK policy? Should they be allowed to serve in the British government? Some Conservatives darkly question whether David Cameron, having lost the Union, would be forced to resign as Prime Minister.
There would be further upheaval in May 2015 when Scottish voters would elect MPs to serve for as little as ten months before being expelled from Westminster. Were a Labour (or Labour-Lib Dem) government to be formed on the basis of support from MPs north of the border (where Labour currently holds 41 MPs to the Conservatives’ one), the right-wing media and many Tories would denounce it as an illegitimate imposition on the rest of the UK. Ed Miliband, meanwhile, would face the prospect of losing his majority less than a year after becoming prime minister. As a Labour MP put it to me, “If we lose Scotland, we could be completely buggered.”
The belief that Scottish independence would consign the rest of the UK to permanent Conservative government is one that inspires hope among Tories (“It’s win-win for us,” one told me recently) and despair among Labour. But both overestimate the influence of Scotland on general elections. On no occasion since 1945 would independence have changed the identity of the winning party and on only two occasions would it have converted a Labour majority into a hung parliament (1964 and October 1974). Without Scotland, Labour would still have won in 1945 (with a majority of 143, down from 146), in 1966 (75, down from 98), in 1997 (137, down from 179), in 2001 (127, down from 166) and in 2005 (43, down from 66).
What those who say that Labour cannot win without Scotland are really arguing is that the party will never win a sizeable majority again. History shows that England and Wales are prepared to elect a Labour government when the conditions are right. But, at least for psephological reasons, it is Miliband, more than Cameron, who has cause to fear the tightening of the polls.
This piece appears in this week's issue of the New Statesman
Musicians and pundits need to get over their obsessive, nostalgic hero-worship. In 2014, David Bowie is irrelevant.
In ten years time, if we should happen to look over the Brits winners of 2014, among the list of forgotten flash in the pans and now-stadium-dependables David Bowie’s award for Best Male Artist will be the Proust’s madeleine or forgotten TV theme that sends us hurtling back to 2014. And, with a lurch of embarrassment for the time and all of us here, the question will form on our lips: “What were we thinking?”
Let’s not pretend: Bowie’s award was for being alive, as was the acclaim that greeted his single, “Where Are We Now”. We thought he was dead/in a coma/suffering from dementia/Parkinson’s Disease and he wasn’t. If that didn’t do it, the song (calculatedly or not, who knows?) was even about nostalgia – walking through Berlin, looking back – and came with a wistful chorus guaranteed to send Pavlovian shivers down the spine of anyone who’d seen him perform “Starman” on Top Of The Pops, or listened to “Station to Station” in a dark bedroom, or remembered him leaning against a wall in the video for “Let’s Dance”. Solo acts can’t break up and reform; Bowie had (calculatedly or not) figured out his own way to rekindle that love.
I’m as happy as anyone that he’s alive and well enough to make a record and disappoint me by appearing in an advert for Louis Vuitton. But let’s not get this out of proportion. Let’s not pretend he’s made a great album: I don’t even want to listen to the whole of that song again, let alone the album it comes from. It was the same when Bob Dylan released his Tempest in 2012. Asked what the best albums of the year were, I put that in. How could I not? It was Bob Dylan, the man who changed rock music and, more importantly, nursed me through my student days and three separate heartbreaks, played the best gig I’ve ever seen, whose greatest moments still work their magic for me. And I haven’t listened to Tempest since.
Bowie, like Dylan, is irrelevant. Any of the other nominees for Best Male Artist – folk throwback Jake Bugg, angsty electronicist James Blake, retro-soulboy John Newman or plangent piano manchild Tom Odell – represent a strand of popular music in the UK now, for good or ill. Marvellously, none of them were born when Bowie last won the same award, in 1984 – for Let’s Dance, the album where he was last relevant, though first stopped dictating what relevance was. Another twinkle in his father’s eye was Harry Styles of One Direction, whose reaction to Bowie’s win, for Radio 4’s Today programme, was, “He’s a legend.” The boy put his finger on it – a legend is exactly what Bowie is, and his award came from the ancestor-worship pop music has been indulging in for some time as it tries to come to terms with its own old age.
Radio 6, a station created in order to connect pop past and present, has been one of the most committed participants in the past year’s Bowie worship. Perhaps they can draw a line under it now. Moving on doesn’t have to take away from what he did before – we can still love that. We can enjoy his new stuff, too, but let’s not get them confused. It’s a shame Bowie’s comeback didn’t take the form of dense art music like Scott Walker’s, or painting. Instead, it seems he still wants to be in the game. But to humour him, for the sake of our various pasts, is ludicrous.
A council tax revaluation, local proportional representation and participatory budgets should all be on the table.
Last week was all about devolution. Ed Miliband and Jon Cruddas led the charge with a pair of visionary but detail-light speeches about the ways a Labour government will start to hand power down to councils and communities. Even this rhetorical shift towards localism is remarkable following the centralised control-freakery of the New Labour years. The promise is clear – better designed, more efficient services and much deeper engagement with citizens.
But while it may be a little early for hard and fast policy, Labour does need to start working through the practical issues it will face very quickly. Meaningful devolution cannot be achieved through a few tweaks here and there. If Miliband and Cruddas are serious, they will have to commit themselves to one of the largest programmes of institutional change that England has ever seen.
Real devolution will mean tackling a trifecta of challenges – making council finances sustainable, reforming the civil service and addressing the local accountability deficit. Not only are these problems big, difficult and often considered too dull for leaflets and PPBs, they are also the sort of problem that need addressing in the first six months of a new administration before ministers lose their reformist momentum and fall back. overwhelmed into the arms of the mandarins.
Local government finance is the trickiest of the three. The system as it stands is a mess. Council tax is set against property values from 1992, and so completely fails to reflect the massive relative increase in southern house values. It has effectively been capped by the coalition for the past three years, with the effect that its claim to be in any sense a local tax is slowly dying. Business rates have not risen in real terms since 1992 and is also effectively treated as a national tax.
With a double whammy of government cuts and rising demand meaning councils face a £16.5bn spending gap by 2020, Miliband will need to find a way to pass more revenue-raising power down to the local level. This means, at the very least, a council tax revaluation and new bands so the very wealthiest pay more. More likely, a whole new system for local taxation will be required.
Civil service reform is probably more achievable – it is, after all, within the direct grasp of the prime minister, who has only to appoint a reformist Cabinet Secretary and demand change. If Miliband is serious about pooling money from different services into a single 3-5 year pot and devolving this to local level, he will need to manage the budget process in a very different way.
Instead of handing separate budgets to, say, the Department of Health and the Department for Communities, and then hoping they will cobble it back together into a single budget, he will have to bypass departments entirely and pass pooled funding to local government. This will require new lines of accountability to ensure that councils are spending the money well. It may also require the new prime minister to revisit Blair-era plans for a new US-style Office of Management and Budget to take on the public spending aspects of the Treasury’s work.
Finally, Miliband must confront the very real challenges facing local democracy. It is striking that neither he nor Cruddas seem overly worried about the role of voting in a new devolved settlement. In their vision, low turnouts are managed by lots of co-production and involvement of citizens in managing and designing the services they receive.
This will not be enough. With council election turnout flatlining in the low 30s, ministers need to consider how to get the public involved in big choices about the future of their places. Radical ideas such as local proportional representation or compulsory voting should be on the table, as should mandatory use of local participatory budgets combined with jury service-style selection of participants.
Localism represents a gigantic, but necessary, reform agenda. Are Miliband and Cruddas really up for it? We must hope so, because Labour has been trying to do piecemeal, pragmatic reform of local government for a very long time, and it has not delivered. England’s governance is groaning under the weight of decades of accumulated pragmatism. If we are going to make a reality of a more devolved nation, we need a government that will make a fresh start.
Kevin Pietersen willed himself to become an Englishman, and is as troubled as he is gifted. But who is he? And will we miss him now that he is banished from the team?
I — Five years ago, researching a book about Fortune, I came across the following paragraph in a scholarly essay about Renaissance conduct. The author was defining a particular type of Renaissance man, the so-called fortunato, or “Fortunate One”. It read:
The Fortunate Man, unlike the virtuous man, does not need a code of conduct; he has only to follow his impulses and be carried to the highest goals … The fortunati often lose their occult powers when they begin to study or try to work out a course of action … In all they do, they act without caution and close their ears to advice and admonition. They violate all dictates of reason and prudence, and yet they never fail.
In the margin, I wrote one word: “Pietersen”.
I had played with and against the brilliant but troubled South African-turned-English cricketer. As a fellow player, I deeply respected his talent. Later, when I was a commentator, it was his innings I wanted to describe.
I have never seen any batsman impose his willpower as Pietersen could. Where Sachin Tendulkar was a genius of skill, Pietersen is a genius of self-belief. His confidence and desire filled the whole arena, relegating the other players to the status of pawns. He could be gauche and socially awkward, but that doesn’t explain why people took against him. There was something more innately domineering about Pietersen, a quality that transcended language or manners, as though he could succeed only by putting other people down.
Now he has gone. Celebrated but isolated, heroic but exiled, tattooed with badges of modernity but strangely out of step with the times, Kevin Pietersen, who is 33, has been kicked out of the England cricket team without appeal. He has been dropped, without hope of a recall. In normal circumstances, a glimmer of hope survives. Not for Pietersen.
Along the way he notched up a remarkable list of firsts. In his first top-flight one-day series as an England batsman in 2005, he scored three dazzling hundreds in South Africa, the country of his birth. Later that same year, he helped inspire England’s first Test series win over Australia in 18 years. In 2008, he scored a century in his first match as England captain. Statistically he is the most prolific England batsman of all time. He did it all with rare instinct and style.
II — Pietersen’s relationship with English cricket is often described as a marriage of convenience – advantageous to both parties while it lasted, but loveless. Perhaps it was even colder than that. I doubt Pietersen ever truly loved cricket – not in the way Roger Federer loves tennis – let alone English cricket. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that he was infatuated with the things cricket could do for him. Pietersen was going places and cricket could take him there. The game became the conduit for ambition on an epic scale. Perhaps there is a fairer term than ambition: his need.
At the end of 2003, aged 26, I was dropped from the England Test team and found myself on the England A tour to India (for A, read B). Pietersen was also on that tour, his first taste of playing in an England shirt, a year before his elevation to the full England team. We sat next to each other on the plane. For much of the trip he listened to loud house music on his portable player. In the clouds above Afghanistan, he took off his headphones and struck up conversation, a dialogue that seemed to have been running for some time inside his own head. “This is how I’m going to play Pollock,” he said, going into a technical analysis of how to combat the great South African opening bowler. “And this is how I’m going to play Kallis.” On he went, going through the South Africa bowling line-up.
“But Kev,” I eventually replied, “aren’t we about to play in India?” “Yes,” he replied, “but in a year’s time I’ll be on the full England tour to South Africa.”
There was something almost honourable about such unapologetically blunt ambition. For the record, one year later, he attacked the South African bowlers in that one-day series in South Africa with sensational daring. Booed and taunted as a traitor when he walked out to bat, Pietersen, who was born in Pietermaritzburg, Natal, silenced the crowd with three unforgettable centuries in just five innings. He took exceptional risks in every hundred; yet it seemed impossible he would fail (a true sign of the fortunati). England lost the series, but Pietersen had arrived.
By then, however, nothing could surprise me about him. In India, standing at the non-striker’s end, I’d watched him play a different game from the rest of us. Though I’ve played alongside Steve Waugh, Rahul Dravid and Carl Hooper, I’ve never seen batting as good as Pietersen’s on that trip. Certainty underpinned everything he did: certainty of stroke, certainty of conviction, certainty of career trajectory. By the end of the tour, I was just as clear as he was about one central fact: Pietersen was going to be a great player. In fact, he already was.
Back in England, several leading journalists encouraged me to agree with their view that he was fallible, that his technique was flawed, that his confidence was brittle. I told everyone who would listen that he was one of the best I’d seen.
I found myself sympathetic to Pietersen’s position again in late 2008, when he was sacked as England captain. His mistake had been to overplay his hand. Like several of the senior players, he wanted the coach, Peter Moores, to be replaced. But Pietersen had neither the patience nor the political skill to hide the strength of his feelings. He blundered into an ultimatum. As a result, both Moores and Pietersen were sacked. But what had the England and Wales Cricket Board expected when it appointed him as captain? A consensus-building diplomat? No, the ECB deliberately opted for his arrogance and insouciance, then recoiled from it. In effect, Pietersen was appointed captain for being Pietersen and then sacked for being Pietersen. He never trusted English cricket again, nor vice versa.
III — Then, as now, the furore over Pietersen’s treatment opened up the fault lines that run through English sport. This final sacking has morphed into a referendum on the establishment. To his critics, Pietersen is a man who eventually falls out with everyone, a non-team player, unreliable at a far deeper level than his performance on the pitch. In finally reaching this position, the ECB joins a long list of employers and institutions that ultimately could no longer find a home for him.
Pietersen’s allies rail against the English suspicion of mavericks and flair, the triumph of company men, the complacent persecution of a misunderstood outsider, the hint of tall-poppy syndrome. Pietersen has found supporters in unusual places, people who might not warm to him personally but hold an even greater grudge against the establishment. More predictably he has become a magnet for the media’s self-styled tribunes of the people – not that they have helped him.
He is also a hero to a very different constituency: those who are in awe of him. During Pietersen’s exile in 2012 – when he was essentially suspended after sending unflattering texts about the then England captain, Andrew Strauss, to opposition players – civilised opinion sided with Strauss. Yet there is something about Pietersen that many fans, even intelligent ones who understand that there is a team dimension to cricket, find irresistible.
IV — Throughout the winter of 2013-2014, as England slumped to a 5-0 defeat in Australia, the press corps struggled with whether or not to report the existence of a new force in the English game. To ignore it was professional negligence, because it had become an unavoidable part of the story, but to acknowledge it in print would only encourage a self-publicist who had latched on to cricket (a subject about which he is inexpert though enthusiastic) partly to serve his own ends. It’s time to talk about Piers Morgan.
During and after the Ashes, Morgan used the platform of Twitter to mount ad hominem attacks on members of the England team. Every losing team knows it will cop plenty of criticism, but this was different. Morgan had access to privileged information. He used a sledgehammer to make his point. Pietersen was the misunderstood genius. The management were callous cretins bent on his destruction. Not untypically, Morgan recently described the present captain, Alastair Cook, widely regarded as a man of integrity, as “a repulsive little weasel”. Morgan is a friend of Pietersen’s.
Now a television personality based in America, Morgan has increasingly behaved as though he is Pietersen’s public relations agent. As a gifted polemicist used to dealing with far savvier opponents than cricket insiders, Morgan has been able to dominate many of his media debates about Pietersen. Even David Cameron, unwisely drawn into expressing an opinion about cricket selection, said he thought that Morgan had made “quite a powerful argument” about Pietersen’s sacking.
Pietersen’s England career was not in the gift of Downing Street; he needed the support of the English cricket hierarchy. Morgan’s PR “victories” certainly accelerated Pietersen’s demise; to the men who mattered, they reinforced the perception that Pietersen could not be trusted. Perhaps Morgan thought he was helping his pal, and simply misjudged the situation. Or perhaps he calculated that however things panned out for Pietersen, more people would end up talking about Piers Morgan.
Pietersen’s sacking has been interpreted as the fall of a sportsman who has run out of friends. It is sadder than that. It wasn’t just the friends he lacked that did for Pietersen, but the friends he had. For all his gifts, he was let down by his judgement of people. The old warning “Beware your follower”, a couple of thousand years older than Twitter, has rarely been more apt.
Far more balanced observers than Morgan have also interpreted Pietersen’s demise in terms of a clash of personalities, arguing that England should have been prepared to “manage” him. This time, however, that view is hard to sustain. Pietersen has now clashed with just about everyone: a long list of captains, coaches and employers.
The unavoidable logic is that something in the man, innate and essential, steered his England career towards its premature end. I am very sad about that because I, too, loved watching him play. But sadness should not bleed into sentimentality. Those who sacked Pietersen will all be judged according to the results of the England team. They have a lot of skin in the game. And yet they believed, with growing certainty, that Pietersen’s indifference was eating away at the team. Pride – which great teams foster to an almost irrational degree – cannot easily share a room with indifference. That is why no one could make a case for Pietersen staying. In the end, that is the evidence that counts.
Most sportsmen seek achievement – glory, too, and a measure of fame. But after a while, once the initial infatuation with adulation has passed, it is often the respect of their peers that sustains top athletes. Pietersen was different. He was compelled to greatness, never really encouraged towards it by others. His game was powered by his own desires.
I’ve often wondered what advice, if I’d been England coach watching his productivity wane, might have made a difference to Pietersen. The best I could come up was something like this: “You remember the man who was booed out to the middle in South Africa in 2005 and yet smashed the bowlers for three hundreds, all with controlled, violent certainty? Remember the England debutant who top-scored in both innings at Lord’s in that first Test against Australia, never feeling a moment of vertigo? Some force drove that man. Find it again, channel it, direct it.”
But I doubt it is still there. Then is not now. Then he was hungry and unknown, now he is famous and extremely rich. In between, he has been revered and, just as importantly, rejected. As such, the world has revealed itself as, one senses, he always imagined it would. It has acquiesced in the willpower of Kevin Pietersen, but uncomfortably so, before recoiling from the force of his personality. That is why he will feel, all the way to the end, that he has been proved right.
Abundantly, ridiculously gifted, an outsider cursed with a persecution complex, needy and exhaustingly egotistical, Pietersen never quite found a home for his heroism. He is back where he started, an exiled gun for hire.
Ed Smith’s “Luck: a Fresh Look at Fortune” is published by Bloomsbury (£8.99)
The silence of the climate-change deniers, subsidising Dacre’s acres, and Tristram Hunt’s silence.
Where are they all? As half of southern England disappears under flood water, Nigel Lawson and his son Dominic, Christopher Booker, Melanie Phillips, Peter Hitchens, Richard Littlejohn, James Delingpole and other climate-change sceptics are strangely silent. When snow falls, it is their habit to report that, after looking outside, they can conclusively refute claims that the planet is warming. Now, as the country experiences unprecedented quantities of rain, with giant waves reported off the coast and winter temperatures staying mostly above freezing, they seem to have lost interest.
Beneath the Daily Telegraph’s front-page report on the floods the other day, a cross-reference signalled that Delingpole was on page 18. I turned eagerly inside. He was writing about giraffes.
Yes, I know that no particular weather event can be attributed directly to global warming. But weird, erratic weather of this sort – a heatwave in Australia, low temperatures in the US, continuous rain and wind in the UK, all breaking records – is exactly what scientists predicted. The Lawsons and the rest could at least give us a clue as to what is going through their minds.
After the flood
The Daily Mail’s petition to divert foreign aid to British flood victims is a shameless piece of xenophobic rabble-rousing, even by the Mail’s standards. Last year’s floods in northern India caused about 5,700 deaths. The Pakistan floods of 2010, which directly affected roughly 20 million people, cost an estimated £26bn. The floods in Thailand in 2011 cost even more. Dreadful though the English floods must be for those affected, the death toll and final costs will be, by international standards, insignificant. Whatever the failings of the Environment Agency, we are lucky to live in a country that has the infrastructure, emergency services and insurance provision to cope fairly well with natural disasters.
If the Mail must have a target, the £3bn a year in subsidies to UK farming, which benefits firms such as Tate & Lyle and British Sugar and landowners such as the Daily Mail’s editor, Paul Dacre (for his Scottish estate, Langwell), would be a better one.
Driven to distraction
As readers of last week’s New Statesman will have noted, Labour’s education spokesman, Tristram Hunt, has nothing to say about “education’s Berlin Wall” and the dominance of the private school minority in public life. Yet he has plenty to say on other pressing matters. Under a Labour government, he has informed us in recent weeks, teachers will be relicensed every five years, “behaviour experts” will stop kids messing about in class, children will acquire “the ability to concentrate” and schools will teach “resilience and self-control and character”. Meanwhile, Ed Miliband, presumably with Hunt’s agreement, says that parents will be able to get head teachers sacked.
Somebody should tell Hunt that, under a well-managed education system, teachers would be left to deal with bad and inattentive children, heads with bad teachers and governors (who, in local authority schools, include elected parental representatives) with bad heads. Wider strategic issues such as the role of fee-charging schools are for politicians and policymakers. It is Hunt who should learn how to concentrate.
Get your Daley rant
You may have spotted the Sunday Telegraph columnist Janet Daley – whose writing career I helped launch on the Independent’s education pages around 1987 – on BBC1’s Question Time. You may also have heard audience dissent as she delivered her trenchant right-wing opinions. Do not be deceived. In a recent column, Daley explains to “folks at home” (she’s North American and they talk that way over there) that “professional activists who are trained in the techniques of public influence” position themselves around the room so they can cause “enough ruckus to intimidate those who disagree with them”. Conservatives are apparently powerless to hit back because they “lead normal lives with private preoccupations”.
This gloriously paranoid analysis requires no comment from me but I should pay tribute to the prescience of an Independent colleague who, when I started publishing Daley (because she was among the few right-wing writers who could compose a readable sentence on education), declared that she was “not the sort of person one should encourage”.
Deal or no deal
David Cameron asks the English to phone their Scottish friends and tell them to vote No in the independence referendum. With any luck, the Scots will make the obvious reply: if you English promise to stop voting Tory, we’ll stay in the UK.
Emoticons are a new and evolving form of language, and they are producing new patterns of brain activity.
This article first appeared on newrepublic.com
The brain is a funny organ. It controls consciousness and thought but, it turns out, it can also be tricked into responding to a few punctuation marks as if they were a human face. The brain perceives emoticons the same way as it does real faces, according to a new paper in the journal Social Neuroscience.
Australian psychologist Dr Owen Churches and his coauthors at Flinders University and the University of South Australia recruited 28 participants and monitored their neural activity as they were presented with different stimuli: smiling emoticons, random punctuation marks, or pictures of smiling male or female faces. If the punctuation marks were rotated – for instance, (-: instead of :-) – the brain didn’t respond the same way.
“Emoticons are a new form of language that we're producing,” Churches told ABC News. “And to decode that language, we've produced a new pattern of brain activity.”
Though they’ve only come into popular use in the last few years, emoticons have become the subject of a growing literature within computer science and psychology. Here’s what some other researchers have discovered about emoticons and their impact on meaning.
For a 2007 paper in the journal International Journal of Business Communication, Kristin Byron of Syracuse University recruited 300 college students and had them take a personality survey, which was graded for emotional stability. The researchers then had the students read a series of banal emails from strangers – high school students asking for information on the university or professors requesting copies of academic papers. Some of the emails included smiley faces, while others consisted only of text. The students then had to try to assess the personality of the high schoolers or professors, based only on their emails. It turned out that the students who were higher in emotional stability tended to rate the senders as more “likeable” if they used emoticons, while less stable students weren’t swayed by the smiley faces.
For a 2012 paper in the journal Cyberpsychology Behavior And Social Networking, Tina Ganster and her colleagues at Germany’s University of Duisburg-Essen compared the psychological impact of sending and receiving old-school smilies – the kind made up of punctuation marks, “:-)”, with pictographic smilies (). Ganster recruited 130 subjects online and had them read the transcript of an IM conversation that either included punctuation smilies, pictographic smilies or neither – and found that the pictographic smilies had the strongest impact on subjects’ mood.
In a 2008 paper in the journal Information & Management, researchers led by Albert Huang at the University of the Pacific looked at how using emoticons in IM conversations affected emotions in 216 people. “IM messages are less formal and individuality is enhanced by a large variety of emoticons that allow users to express emotions easily,” wrote Huang. As they expected, they found a positive correlation between enjoyment and emoticon use:
An emoticon speeds up communication and eliminates some difficulty in expressing feeling using words; the process is easier, more interactive, and more fun. Also many emoticons are aesthetically pleasant and look amusing and many users apply emoticons sarcastically.
This article first appeared on newrepublic.com
Labour’s serial election winner may have finally found an enemy who is capable of destroying him: himself.
At a televised town hall meeting shortly before the 2010 Congressional elections, Democratic supporter Velma Hart told President Obama that she was "exhausted of defending you, defending your administration...and deeply disappointed with where we are right now."
I know how she feels.
In 1997, my school was falling down. In 2007, I was offered a place at Oxford University. In the decade between, I saw the local housing estate be completely rebuilt and I heard my teacher tell the school bully that there was nothing wrong with being gay. I attended a civil partnership and I watched Northern Ireland go from breaking news to a peaceful settlement.
So I’m never going to get exhausted of defending Tony Blair’s administration, but I am increasingly tired of defending Tony Blair, and I’m disappointed, too, with where we are right now. I’m not, to be honest, particularly exercised about what Tony Blair says to Rebekah Brooks– everyone’s got at least one slightly dodgy mate - but I am angry that the man who is quite rightly hailed as a hero in Kosovo for standing up to a brutal dictator now takes money from another brutal dictator in Kazakhstan. I don’t understand why the man who led a government that was more redistributive than Clement Attlee’s now runs a foundation that won’t pay its interns.
These ought to be boom years for Tony Blair; David Cameron’s brutal and incompetment administration is a living rebuke to those who claimed that there was no difference between New Labour and unrestrained Conservatism. The institutions and services that people are now rallying to defend against the coalition’s axe are, for the most part, ones that were set up by Blair’s government. Abroad, too, the events of the last seven years should have restored and strengthened Blair’s reputation. Iraq is not perfect, but Western leaders have now stress-tested whether or not you can have regime change without outside intervention, and the bloody lesson from Syria, Bahrain, Liba and Egypt is that if the incumbent controls the military and has no inclination to leave freely, then you do not get regime change. But who do latter-day supporters of a foreign policy that puts freedom and democracy at the heart of Britain’s dealings in the Middle East find supporting the military junta in Egypt? Tony Blair.
In office, Blair was blessed in his opponents, who were mostly either odious, like George Galloway, inadequate a la Brown, or, in the case of Iain Duncan Smith, both. In retirement, though, Labour’s serial election winner may have finally found an enemy who is capable of destroying him: himself. Instead of developing the stature of a British Bill Clinton, he instead taking on many of the worst features of the post-White House Clinton; the sinister associates, the dirty money, and a party that, instead of lauding him as a saviour, begins to regard him as, at best, a slightly embarrassing elderly relative.
It has taken eight years of the worst and most right-wing President in American history, and a further six years of progressive rule dominated by conservative instrangience for the Democrats to truly let the Clintons into their hearts again. Blair seems determined to ensure that even twenty years of Boris Johnson in Number Ten may not be enough to save him.
The Mid Antrim seat existed from 1885 to 1922. It had three MPs, all called O’Neill. The first, Robert Torrens O’Neill, was defeated by William Pirrie Sinclair in a by-election for the previous seat, Antrim, in May 1885. O’Neill gained the new seat in the general election in November that year.
When Robert died in 1910, his nephew Arthur O’Neill took over. Arthur had fought in the second Boer war and had been involved in the relief of Kimberley. He served with the British army’s oldest regiment, the Life Guards, and was killed near Ypres in November 1914. He was the first MP to die in the First World War. His brother, Hugh, was unopposed at the subsequent by-election.
The long-delayed government-commissioned report slipped out today contradicts claims by ministers that food bank usage is driven by supply.
The ten must-read comment pieces from this morning's papers.
1. It's no wonder David Cameron has alienated the church (Guardian)
Though Cameron used a centrist strategy to win power, his policies have never been anything other than Thatcherite, writes Steve Richards.
2. Putin is winning the Ukraine power games (Times)
As Kiev descends into civil war, the west has again been wrongfooted by a regime propped up by the Kremlin, says Roger Boyes.
3. Ministers need to make long-term decisions on flooding (Daily Telegraph)
Investment in flood defences - preventative spending that can save money in the long-run - must and will be a priority for the next Labour government, says Ed Balls.
In what amounts to an abuse of democracy, lobbyists are being used to put the case for an absurd project few really want, writes Simon Jenkins.
5. Europe needs to stop hiding under the covers (Financial Times)
The continent must wake up to the costs of illegal migration, jihadi terrorism and global crime, says Philip Stephens.
6. A tricky balance between Church and state (Daily Telegraph)
The bishops protesting about welfare should consider their own role in a stronger society, says Isabel Hardman.
7. Swift lesson in principles of economics (Financial Times)
Science and technology influence living standards but government still has a role, says Samuel Brittan.
Both Lloyds and almost certainly RBS are working on contingencies for a Yes vote, writes Alex Brummer.
For too long, the political parties have believed that public service is bad and private sector is good, writes Andreas Whittam Smith.
I can't help bingeing on series like Downtown Abbey and House of Cards, yet hate the pernicious influence of their politics, writes Gail Dines.
Ed Balls's emphasis on the long-term benefits of investment in flood defences is an example of how the party could challenge the Tory narrative on public spending.
With the flood waters finally receding, the debate about how Britain copes with extreme weather in the long-term (the Met Office has just confirmed that this winter was the wettest since 1910) is beginning. Ed Balls has a notable piece in the Telegraph today committing the next Labour government to increased investment in flood defences (it "must and will be a priority," he writes). Having warned in his 2012 conference speech that "we must decide how we are going to protect our country from rising sea levels and exceptional rainfall", Balls, more than most, can claim to have seen this crisis coming.
In the piece, he makes the case for higher spending on flood protection (which, contrary to David Cameron's claims, was cut by 17 per cent in real-terms in 2010) as part of a wider shift towards long-term preventative spending (which can result in significant savings). He writes:
[T]he damage from the flooding of recent weeks is not only to people's lives and livelihoods, but the financial costs are expected to be over a billion pounds. Furthermore, the Committee on Climate Change warned last month that investment in flood defences is now £500 million below what's needed and that this risks £3 billion in avoidable flood damage.
How can this make economic sense? Rather than the short-termist salami-slicing of budgets we have seen, we need instead to make long-term decisions now that can save money in the future.
Next month's Budget must begin to set out that action, and I am also clear that investment in flood defences - preventative spending that can save money in the long-run - must and will be a priority for the next Labour government.
Balls is certainly right to argue for the long-term economic benefits of investment (alongside flood prevention, one could cite housing, childcare, transport and skills), which is why he has, crucially, left open the option of borrowing for this purpose, while achieving a current budget surplus.
In a recent Staggers piece, Julian Morgan, the chief economist of Green Alliance, made the case for running a capital deficit to pay for improved flood defences: "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 shadow chancellor and his aides state both publicly and privately that no decision will be taken on whether to do so until closer to the election, when the state of the economy is clearer. But few in the party believe it will be possible for Labour to achieve its priorities – a mass housebuilding programme, universal childcare, the integration of health and social care – without doing so. As one shadow cabinet minister recently told me: "We all know that a Labour government would invest more." The question, rather is a tactical one: when and how does Labour make the case for "good borrowing"?
Owing to the Tories' framing of the crash as the result of overspending by the last government, the party starts from a position of weakness. In private, Ed Miliband’s advisers argue that the voters are able to distinguish between borrowing to fund day-to-day spending and borrowing for investment, just as they distinguish between “borrowing to fund the weekly shop” and “borrowing for an asset like a house”. But the Labour leader is not yet prepared to make this case in public. Since an ill-fated interview last year on Radio 4’s The World at One, in which he refused eight times to admit that Labour would borrow more than the Conservatives, Miliband has focused deliberately on market reforms that would not cost government money: freezing energy prices, expanding use of the living wage and restructuring the banking system. When he has made promises that would require new funding, such as the construction of 200,000 homes a year by 2020, the question of borrowing has been deferred.
But sooner rather than later, the party will need to return to it. After the deluge of this winter, flood prevention would be a good place to start.
Videogames are designed and programmed for action, which means storytelling has the capacity to be complex and engaging in ways not possible in other media.
Games writers dream up characters, dialogue, motivations and plot much like film screenwriters. But rather than keeping an audience captive for two or three hours at a time as in cinema, gamers will play for dozens if not hundreds of hours over the course of a game.
While some factors of screenwriting come into play in videogames, the nature of game storytelling is quite different. This is the theme being explored at Perth Festival this weekend in The Game Changers: The Writer and The Game, which on the face of it seems to break the traditional model for writers festivals.
So what can we say about writing for games?
At the heart of game storytelling is the concept of “player agency”. Here, “agency” refers to the ability of a player to make changes within the game environment, or even more importantly, the illusion of being able to do this.
If the game presents a convincing enough illusion of freedom then the player suspends his or her disbelief in the artificiality of the game’s world and the limitations in their choice of pathway.
As a medium of interaction, videogames present the player with different possibilities and ask them to enact stories based on designed structures.
This may take a linear form, as in the clearly defined pathways of the action-adventure The Last of Us(2011), to the relatively non-linear in the sense of freedom experienced playing gameSkyrim (2011).
Videogames run a broad spectrum and, while it is accepted that all games have rules, it can be argued that videogames are not necessarily a story-based medium. Looking to early game history, game spaces were more akin to game boards or sports fields.
Horace Goes Skiing.
The objectives of these types of games are straightforward – stay alive as long as possible, and/or obtain a high score. The game space may be limited but the play strategies are endless. Story may be ascribed to these types of games, but they aren’t considered story-based games in a significant sense.
As game history progressed, the abstraction of games like Pac-Man evolved into the “convincing illusion” of fictional game worlds.
The advent of navigating 3D space in games from the mid-1990s such as Super Mario 64 (1996) andTomb Raider (2008) led to the living, breathing worlds we experience in games such asSkyrim(2011) and Grand Theft Auto V (1997).
Over the last ten years, game storytelling has made significant developments along with the rapid rise in new capabilities of each subsequent console generation.
Building on this, the flourishing of the indie game movement has led to an increased experimentation and sophistication in game form and storytelling. We now see a greater range of subject matter and variety of storytelling approaches from both mainstream and indie game development, from the emotional drama ofHeavy Rain (2010) to the pixelated puzzles ofFez (2012) and the simple ethereal serenity of Journey (2012).
Ricardo "Eb" Trejo
With the further maturation of videogames as a form of expression, and the average age of gamers being over 30 in countries such as Australia, game developers have greater remit to create and explore more adult-orientated experiences.
Contemporary videogame experiences can be so emotional and encompassing that players are moved deeply while playing certain games – think of the harrowing decision-making of The Walking Dead (2012) or the relationship that develops between Joel and Ellie in The Last of Us(2011).
American media scholar Henry Jenkins argues that games use their environment to tell stories and may exhibit four dimensions of what he calls “narrative architecture”: games may draw upon pre-existing stories and enact story through traditions drawn from other media such as cinema in the form of non-interactive expository scenes or “cut scenes”, embed story elements within the game space, and create the possibility for players to author their own stories by constructing the world in which they play as in the case of Minecraft (2011).
Exploring human emotion
In Braid(2008), game creator Jonathan Blow set out to explore loss and forgiveness. A game “mechanic” is a feature that describes how the game behaves or operates. It is tied in to the game’s rules and what a player can do within the game.
Braid is a puzzle game in which the core mechanic is the player’s ability to manipulate the flow of time, including rewinding time. Here the central thematic and conceptual concerns of the game are designed into a gameplay feature that explores memory and the feelings associated with failed relationships.
A game such as Gone Home (2013) demonstrates environmental storytelling. In it, the player assumes the role of Katie, who returns home from a long trip overseas to her empty family home and discovers a mysterious note written by her sister, Samantha.
A liminal example of game design as exploration, Gone Home is akin to a detective story, in which the player searches the house for artefacts that develop the tapestry of the intriguing narrative about Samantha and the rest of the Katie’s family.
The accomplishment in the writing of Gone Home can be seen in the way the game activates players' curiosity to draw them into the mystery. There’s a subtlety and elegance to the writing of this game – despite not encountering any other physical characters, fragments of narrative are dispersed and embedded throughout which the player must actively piece together to interpret the story.
In many ways, the similarities between the game writing and screenwriting processes are limited to constructing overarching plots or writing character dialogue and cut scenes – should these techniques even be employed in the game’s approach to story.
Videogames are designed and programmed for action, which means storytelling has the capacity to be complex and engaging in ways not possible in other media. Story is affected on a moment-to-moment basis dependent on the affordances employed, the way spaces are navigated, or choices the player makes.
Videogame environments create a world for meaningful play where events unfold, challenges evolve and the story is different for each and every player.
Scott Knight 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.
"I know we all look the same," said Kendall after being repeatedly mistaken for her shadow cabinet colleague.
Last night's Question Time was not one Philip Hammond will want to remember. Up against Labour's shadow care minister Liz Kendall, the defence secretary mistakenly adressed her as "Rachel", confusing her with her colleague Rachel Reeves. "I know we all look the same," quipped Kendall in response, a knowing reference to the Tories' woman problem.
Hammond went on to compound this error by referring to her twice more as "Rachel" later on in the programme ("It's Liz!", an exasperated Kendall protested). But whether you're sharing a platform with her or not, Liz Kendall is a name to remember. After impressing in her current brief, she's a good bet for promotion in the final pre-election Labour reshuffle.
Knowing how common miscarriage is – an estimated one in four pregnancies end this way – doesn’t stop you from feeling guilty.
You remember the birthdays of the children you don’t have. My first child was due to be born on 14 March 2007. I worked this out with an online pregnancy calculator and then my GP confirmed it. Since then 14 March has been a date I can’t ever forget.
I’ve always known that babies are rarely born on their due dates. I told myself it would be later, or perhaps slightly earlier. In the end no child was ever born, so the potential child – the one who would have grown from the embryo I miscarried – got to keep that unrealistically precise birthday forever. Today, less than a month from what would have been her seventh birthday, I still wonder what she (I’ve decided she would have been a girl) would have been like.
Knowing how common miscarriage is – an estimated one in four pregnancies end this way – doesn’t stop you from feeling guilty and alone. After all, aren’t other people merely evidence that the majority of pregnancies culminate in live births? Every person you encounter once depended on the body of someone who was able to sustain them. Every human life is a success against which to measure your failure.
You mount a case for the prosecution against your own body. Was it manslaughter? Contributory negligence? Murder? You shore up the circumstantial evidence – that cup of coffee? The flight you took? Helping to lift up your nephew or elderly relative? There is so much room for error it feels simply impossible for you not to be held responsible. It does not make sense but that is how you feel.
And now, according to research from the University of Copenhagen, up to a quarter of miscarriages may be preventable. What does this mean? As far as the Daily Mail is concerned, it’s another chance to make women feel they could have done things differently. “One in four miscarriages ‘could be prevented with changes to a woman’s lifestyle’,” shouts the headline. That may be true, but only if you consider being over thirty or working night shifts or having to lift heavy objects “lifestyle” choices. And even if you could change these things, together drinking with less alcohol and maintaining a healthy weight (arguably more achievable), you might not be in the lucky “up to a quarter” who are saved. Most of the time we don’t know why miscarriage occurs. We have to live with not knowing, despite that nagging feeling that if only we knew, we might yet persuade our recalcitrant bodies to repent and reform.
Following my miscarriage, I became obsessed with statistics. What was the likelihood of me getting pregnant again? Miscarrying again? For how long would the odds remain in my favour? Of course, none of the articles I read told me the thing I really wanted to know. Even if your prospects seem reasonable, you can suffer multiple pregnancy losses or never get pregnant again. Even if all goes well, you will never really know why that was. We make pregnancy into a morality tale – good women who “don’t leave it too late” get what they deserve – but the truth is, that no one’s body gives a damn what the Daily Mail or researchers in Copenhagen might think. Your body doesn’t even care what you think. You just have to wait it out. And if you conceive once more? Don’t cough too hard. Don’t run. Don’t eat. Don’t breathe, or rather, do, but know that every move you make might be the one that tortures you should the spark be extinguished. No one will ever be able to prove it was your fault but that doesn’t matter. You will dwell on the past and you will always wonder.
Miscarriage will not be made easier to cope with without changing the way we talk about pregnancy, bodies and women’s roles. The physical work of gestation and labour remains undervalued, yet in parallel with this the superficial celebration of pregnancy insinuates that those who can give birth are more virtuous, more real and more womanly than those who supposedly “fail”. It is a myth that lets everyone down, including the women who fulfil their supposed potential, but even more so those who choose not to have children, or who simply cannot. The impression is that this is not about your body but about your soul – and that this soul has been found wanting. Thus it remains hard to grieve. How could you deserve to do so, with such a weight upon your shoulders?
My story ends differently to most. I was offered a reprieve from the shame and sense of incompletion that follows miscarriage. I got pregnant again and my second pregnancy overlapped with what would have been the course of my first. I don’t know why this happened; there’s nothing I did which differentiates me from the millions who suffer pregnancy loss with no such comfort. Nonetheless, I cannot think of my miscarriage with regret – can no longer even consider it a bad thing to have happened – when I know that without it my son would not have come into being. He alone permits me not to blame myself.
But this does not usually happen. What’s more, even if our understanding is slowly improving, the ways in which facts are interpreted and reported needs to be carefully managed. We need to consider what it feels like to suffer a miscarriage, and the way in which guilt and shame, cut loose from any logic, can dominate. I only knew for a short while how lonely the aftermath of miscarriage can make you feel. If you are reading this and have suffered pregnancy losses, I am sorry for not having any answers. The only thing I can say is this: you are not alone and this was not your fault.
Too many many parents are trapped at home or are only able to work a few hours a week because of the rising cost of childcare.
With the price of childcare increasing at double the rate of overall inflation, there now seems to be agreement across the three main political parties that more needs to be done to make childcare affordable. This is likely to become a key battleground at the next election. Family living standards and childcare affordability is a doorstep issue in battleground seats across the country.
Many parents want to work but can’t afford to. Among two-parent families with children, the risk of child poverty is four times higher in families where only one parent works than in families where both do. Our original modelling, published today, suggests that the incomes of families with children aged less than five stand to gain an average of 20 per cent in disposable income upon a mother’s transition into work.
Families with children who are already in work are spending a larger and larger proportion of their income covering childcare costs. The Resolution Foundation has estimated that a median-income couple working full-time with two children aged 2 and 4 now pay out a huge amount for care, around a quarter of their disposable income.
Many people who are already working would like to work more hours but can’t afford too. Surveys of mothers frequently reveal a large gap between the hours mothers would like to work and the hours they currently are. A recent DWP survey found that more than 60 per cent of couples not working full-time would be willing to increase their hours of work if the extra costs were covered by the government. Again, if their needs can be met it is families themselves who stand to gain - our modelling shows that a mother transitioning from working part-time to full-time would see their disposable family income rise by around 20 per cent.
Of course, it is not just incomes that are at stake. Childcare is also good for child development and having more mothers in work would help to reduce gender inequality in earnings. But in an era of squeezed wages and cuts to working-age benefits, work can provide a valuable route out of poverty and lift living standards for families with children.
So what are the political parties planning to do? The coalition announced extra funding in last year’s Budget to increase the value of childcare cash subsidies to families, through a new offer of tax-free childcare vouchers and within Universal Credit. The Labour Party, on the other hand, has said that it would also extend the weekly entitlement to free childcare at ages three and four from 15 to 25 hours for working families.
But if we are to support more out of work parents into jobs, we will need to go further. In most other countries with high rates of employment among mothers of under-fives, publicly subsidised childcare is offered for more hours than in the UK. Prices are often capped so that parents only have to spend around 10 per cent of disposable incomes on care. We should be exploring both options here in the UK. Parents also need high quality childcare that is sufficiently flexible enough to fit around their work schedule. It‘s vital that we address the lack of provision at evenings and weekends.
Not all parents of young children want or are able to work. Public policy that supports parental employment should not be forcing people into the labour market. But many parents are trapped at home or are only able to work a few hours a week because of the rising cost of childcare. Helping this group into jobs and to progress has enormous potential for tackling the cost of living crisis, and should be a key focus of childcare and early years policy.
Spencer Thompson is Economic Analyst at IPPR
President Nazerbayev doesn't want to rule a "stan" any more. So he's suggesting it become Kazakh Yeli or Kazakhiya.
What’s in a name? When it comes to geographical place names, quite a lot actually, as anyone who’s found themselves stuck talking to someone who insists on telling you about their fabulous holiday to Ceylon or Siam, will tell you. Naming a country or a city is a powerful act, and an opportunity to impose your ideology – which is why so many former colonies have been keen to shake off their colonial place names.
Take the central square in Tripoli, the focal point for Libya's 2011 revolution. Under Italian rule it was Rome Square, but after Muammar Gaddafi took power in 1969 it became Green Square – as the colour green was seen to represent his “Al Fatah” revolution. When Gaddafi fell, it became Martyrs Square, to commemorate the protesters who lost their lives there. Ask a taxi driver now to take you to Green Square, and you get a very funny look.
Or think of how St Petersburg became Leningrad, and then reverted to St Petersburg again, or Volgograd was briefly Stalingrad. Or look at India, where major cities have been renamed to reflect local nationalist sentiments. Bombay became Mumbai in 1995, Madras became Chennai in 1996 and Calcutta became Kolkata in 2001.
It’s not always obvious what name you should use for a country – do you go for Burma or Myanmar? The country’s pro-democracy movement prefer Burma, because they reject the authority of the military junta that renamed it in 1989.
And now Kazakhstan wants to change its name. According to The Economist, the vast and oil rich central Asian country is seeking to distance itself from its less well-off neighbours like Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan and avoid being lumped with volatile “stans” like Pakistan and Afghanistan. President Nazerbayev has suggested it become “Kazakh Yeli” (land of the Kazakhs) or Kazakhiya instead. So far his suggestion hasn't gained much popularity.
It’s unlikely the name change will do much to change international perception of Kazakhstan – in fact it sounds a little bit like a storyline lifted straight from the BBC comedy Ambassadors– but it will give sub-editors and diplomats something to puzzle over.