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    Modern governments have long demonised drugs, but the world now may be inching its way back towards the more rational view held in the 19th century.

    A London opium den in the 1870s, by Gustav Doré
    Image: Hulton Archive/Getty

    Drugged: the Science and Culture Behind Psychotropic Drugs
    Richard J Miller
    Oxford University Press, 384pp, £25.99

    People who study drugs and human society can arrive at curious historical theories. Early in this book we learn of the idea that “the name Jesus actually meant something along the lines of ‘semen’ and that Christ meant something like ‘giant erect mushroom penis’”. It would be invidious, perhaps, to suggest that such symbolic interpretations occur only to researchers who are completely off their tits.

    Happily, Richard J Miller, an eminent professor of pharmacology, soon leaves such psychedelic conspiracy theories behind for a fascinating and illuminating survey of all the major “psychotropic” drugs – defined as “chemical substances that enter the brain and change the way it operates” – from mushrooms and opiates, cocaine, LSD and MDMA, to Big Pharma’s arsenal of tranquillisers, antipsychotics and antidepressants, and thence to alcohol, nicotine, tea, and coffee. (“Caffeine is the most widely consumed psychoactive drug in the world.”)

    Miller deploys numerous chemical diagrams and occasional dense technical explanations of molecular activity, but also cites Thomas De Quincey and 20th-century literary psychonauts such as Ken Kesey. The reports of self-experimenting scientists constitute their own kind of wan poetry. “[Albert] Hofmann originally reported that ergine and isoergine” – which he had isolated from seeds of the morning glory plant – “were only weakly hallucinogenic at best, although they did give him a feeling of ‘unreality’ and made him feel ‘life was completely meaningless’”.

    Modern governments have long demonised drugs, repeatedly commissioning expert reports and then denouncing their findings; or whipping up drug scares for frankly racist purposes, as with the American campaign in the Great Depression against the drug of choice for Mexican labourers, cannabis. (The head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics was the first to popularise the name “marijuana” in English, precisely because it sounded foreign.) The 19th century had been a more rational age, as well as a more innocent one. In that era, Miller explains, “The medicinal uses of cannabis were taken very seriously and endorsed by authorities such as the Lancet […] Even Queen Victoria was prescribed tincture of cannabis. It is believed she was amused (perhaps very amused).” The world now may be inching its way back to a more sensible view, given the legalisation of cannabis by Uruguay in December, and the growing movement for decriminalisation in many American states.

    Against the hostility to evidence of modern legislators, Miller is careful to emphasise, humanely, that illegal drugs as well as legal ones have “highly desirable” effects, not just undesirable ones such as addictiveness, or death in the wrong dose or cocktail. (It was reported that the heroin found in the late actor Philip Seymour Hoffman’s hotel room was part of a batch mixed with the super-potent painkiller fentanyl.) After all, if drugs did not have desirable effects, people would never have got into the habit of taking them. “If we consider some of the beneficial medical effects of alcohol,” Miller writes – an unusual way to begin a sentence in our puritanical, units-counting day – “these would include anticonvulsant, sedative, and hypnotic effects.” Nicotine and caffeine, meanwhile, are good for cognition. And opium, Miller points out, is “the most effective drug ever discovered for combating the most basic of all human complaints: pain. Whatever advances are made in medicine, nothing could really be more important than that.”

    He goes so far as to argue that “morphine is the most significant chemical substance mankind has ever encountered”. (It is only disappointing that here Miller uses the phrase “chemical substance” in the popular but illogical sense that somehow excludes air, water, and food.) He is fondly non-judgemental, too, on the splendid variety of Victorian pick-me-ups that blossomed before modern prohibition. One, a tonic called Vin Mariani, “was a concoction of cocaine in claret, which was certainly a very reasonable idea”.

    It is also useful to have an author on this subject who can remember the 1960s, even though he was there. In a charming aside, Miller explains: “One should remember that at that time, everybody was very infatuated with hallucinogenic drugs and the society they represented. We were all revolutionaries. We thought revolutionary thoughts, listened to Jefferson Airplane, and ingested psychedelic drugs.” But this wasn’t just about tuning in and dropping out: the drug culture was hugely important, as Miller shows, to the emerging field of psychopharmacology, as studying the effects of mescaline or LSD led psychiatrists to suggest new paths of research for the treatment of schizophrenia and other disorders.

    Perhaps the most interesting facet of the book is Miller’s demonstration that the progress of understanding in this field has been very far from the smoothly efficient hypothesis-driven caricature of science that is often promoted by its own defenders. For a start, most of the important therapeutic drugs of the 20th century were discovered by accident, and some in surprising places. Antipsychotics were developed from substances produced during the search for fashionable clothes dyes in the 19th century; while antidepressants came out of research that sought novel compounds deriving from a glut of leftover rocket fuel from the Nazis’ V2 programme.

    Only after the beneficial effects of such substances were serendipitously noticed by scientists did they then try to figure out why they worked. Miller’s explanations of these investigations make for excellent intellectual detective stories, as much for naturally produced drugs as synthetic ones. Why should the human brain, for example, have “receptors” that spark hungrily in the presence of nicotine or opiates? It was not, as it turned out, that God intended us to smoke our heads off, but that these vegetable substances mimicked what were subsequently discovered to be the brain’s own signalling chemicals – neurotransmitters. (Miller doesn’t address the further interesting question as to why the poppy or tobacco plant should produce substances that trick our receptors in the first place. Happy accident – or brilliant evolutionary strategy for getting themselves widely cultivated?) Thus, research on drugs has contributed enormously to our understanding of the brain.

    That understanding is, of course, still in its infancy, and another salutary scientific message of Miller’s book is its emphasis on how much we still don’t know. He offers a useful corrective to simplistic pop-science stories about the allegedly singular roles of dopamine (the so-called reward chemical) or serotonin (“happiness”) in the brain: these are families of chemicals, he shows, with a wide variety of functions. Writing early on about hallucinogens, he comments: “A complete understanding of the way [they] produce their effects would entail a comparable understanding of the neurobiology of consciousness, something that we don’t really possess.” (That “really” is a severe understatement.)

    Meanwhile, it is still not clear how medicines prescribed to millions work, when they do at all – “there are some odd things about the use of the available antidepressant drugs which nobody really understands” – and research on others (eg antipsychotics) has been stalled for decades. But Miller cites recent studies suggesting that targeting the brain’s inflammatory response might be a fruitful direction for future research, and we have certainly not exhausted the repertoire of potentially therapeutic substances to be found in plants. One might even add that the global internet-based market for synthetic “designer drugs”, in which enterprising chemists keep one step ahead of legal bans by rearranging atoms in unforeseen combinations – in passing, Miller characterises this stylishly as a “hypertext drug phenomenon” – could also throw up a molecule that might one day help millions. It’s no more far-fetched, at least, than the idea that licking a toad could give you an enormous sense of well-being.

    Steven Poole’s “Who Touched Base in My Thought Shower? A Treasury of Unbearable Office Jargon” is published by Sceptre (£9.99)


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    Much needs to be done, especially when it comes to access to credit.

    Flick through the business pages, and you will find countless news articles on the latest share price and quarterly results of the multimillion-pound FTSE-100 companies. It is easy to forget that these businesses account for a small minority of firms in the UK; Britain’s small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are the backbone of our economy.

    According to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, there were 4.9 million SMEs in the UK at the start of 2013, making up 99.9 per cent of the country’s private-sector businesses. Their combined revenue accounted for £1.6bn, or 48.1 per cent of total private-sector turnover, and they employ about 14.4 million people, corresponding to 59.3 per cent of the private-sector workforce. When SMEs grow, it’s the whole country that prospers, as usually they reinvest their profits, creating more jobs and boosting exports. So, is the government doing enough to support them?

    There have been a few steps in the right direction. Business regulation has been reduced and simplified, and under the government’s Employment Allowance scheme, which will start in April this year, SMEs have been granted a £2,000 tax cut on their employer National Insurance contributions.

    But still much needs to be done, especially when it comes to access to credit. “A third of our members are repeatedly saying in our quarterly surveys that they are having difficulties accessing adequate finance to grow their businesses,” says Mark Cherry, national policy chairman at the Federation of Small Businesses, the sector lobby group. This is especially worrying at a time when business optimism in the country has picked up – last month it reached its highest level in 22 years, according to research by the advisory firm BDO – because this shows that some of these small businesses will find themselves unable to grow even as the economic environment finally starts to improve.

    Some government initiatives to increase lending to small businesses, including the Funding for Lending and Enterprise Finance Guarantee schemes, seem to be having only limited impact on the problem. Figures from the Bank of England show that net lending to businesses fell by £4.3bn in the three months to November 2013. The state-backed British Business Bank, which should become operational next year after it receives state aid approval from the EU, will also support lending to SMEs, but we’ll need to wait and see how big an effect it will have.

    Increasing competition in the banking sector should be a priority, as SMEs at present are dependent on a small number of reluctant lenders. Equally important is that this support be sustained in the long term. “Short-term initiatives aren’t really taken up by small businesses because they have to adapt their plans to take advantage of some of these schemes,” Cherry says.

    Other countries, notably Germany, Europe’s industrial powerhouse, have done a better job at strengthening their SME sector (what the Germans call their Mittelstand) by providing funding for firms that want to do research to help develop products. Through KfW – Germany’s business bank – the government also provides loans on favourable terms to SMEs that want to export to developing countries or invest in energy-saving programmes.

    The British economy grew by 1.9 per cent in 2013, outperforming even Germany. Now just think what would happen if we championed our very own Mittelstand.

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    A former BBC investigative journalist turned biographer, Bower is drawn to chronicle the big egos that try to dominate the world around them.

    Is there a thread that links the Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie to the pop impresario Simon Cowell, that binds the Formula 1 chief Bernie Ecclestone to the Labour MP and former New Statesman owner Geoffrey Robinson, and runs through the newspaper proprietors Conrad Black, Richard Desmond and Robert Maxwell, as well as the business tycoons Richard Branson and Mohamed Al Fayed?

    Tom Bower, the investigative journalist who has written unflinching, unflattering biographies of all nine men, thinks so. His subjects – perhaps better thought of as his victims – share “an overriding ambition to succeed, a ruthlessness to prevent those who are stopping you get to your goal, and the most astonishing ego”, he tells me. “If they allow defeat to overwhelm them they’re lost, they are of absolutely no interest to me. I’m interested in people who overcome adversity, whose ego is so dominant that even when, like Maxwell and Black, they are actually convicted, they still say they are innocent.”

    When Bower’s biography of Cowell was published in 2012, Cowell told guests at the launch party for the book that he had spent a week hiding under a pillow in his bedroom. This was an unusually mild reaction: as Bower observed at the time, none of the 20 other people he’d written about had ever turned up to celebrate publication. Maxwell took out a multimillion-pound libel suit against Bower (it lapsed). So did Black, Branson and Desmond, and all three lost – with the exception of Black, whose libel trial was put on hold when the media mogul was jailed for fraud in 2007. Another victim of Bower’s investigations said he wanted to break his fingers to stop him working. Writing in the New Statesman in 2001, Robinson described Bower as “messianic, almost to the extent of being unbalanced”.

    I meet Bower at an Italian café in Hampstead, north London, close to the home he shares with his wife, Veronica Wadley, a former editor of the Evening Standard and close confidante of Boris Johnson (a man who is surely a worthy candidate for Bower’s cross hairs).

    At 67, Bower is battle-hardened: he still has his trademark moustache but his hair has turned white-grey and wispy. He arrives looking distracted, and is wearing a slightly too large brown leather jacket, which he doesn’t take off. He sits down awkwardly in front of me, as if poised to leave at any moment. He may have made a living dredging the darkest depths of other people’s lives, but he doesn’t like to give interviews about his own. “I never talk about myself,” he says. “Part of the problem is that if the journalist is an ego-tripper himself he becomes a victim of the very thing he’s trying to criticise about others.” He speaks quietly, in a low drawl. Several times he asks me to check my dictaphone is definitely working. He knows that an unrecorded interview is a journalist’s nightmare.

    Bower’s most recent book, Branson: Behind the Mask, is the latest front in a 15-year campaign to pierce the Virgin boss’s maverick persona and show that, beyond the PR, there is a calculating, manipulative businessman who (and this, Bower believes, is the most painful revelation) isn’t as rich or successful as he says he is. “Everyone has got to believe he’s a billionaire, but if he’s a billionaire why would he rent out his home on Necker? What other billionaire rents out their home? It’s like a bed and breakfast. It’s ridiculous.” This is Bower’s third Branson biography, and it focuses on the Virgin Galactic project: Branson keeps promising to fly people into space at some forever changing date in the near future but his rockets are unworkable and dangerous, as Bower reveals in quite overwhelming detail.

    Behind the Mask had seemed a good place to start the interview, but halfway through my first question Bower interrupts. “Look, what actually is the purpose of the piece?” he asks. I explain I want to understand what motivates him, what drives his dogged pursuit of powerful, dangerous men despite the threats and lawsuits. “Right, let’s start there, then. I am fascinated by power, and the people who exercise power … What do they have, these people?”

    Bower’s interest in politics began early. His parents were Jewish refugees who arrived in London from Prague in 1939, and so “politics and history was there with my mother’s milk”. From the 1950s, Bower travelled with his parents, driving past the minefields marking out the Iron Curtain, to Prague and East Germany. “As a child of refugees, I was an outsider,” he concludes, something that he believes helps him understand the men of influence who sought to break into, and control, the British establishment – men such as Maxwell, the Mirror Group chief, a Jewish Czechoslovakian who escaped from Nazi occupation and whose biography he entitled Maxwell: the Outsider.

    Bower didn’t fit in at school. He went to the William Ellis comprehensive secondary school in Hampstead, where his classmates were the children of left-wing intellectuals, trade unionists and MPs. Bower was a Conservative. “When I told them [the other boys] that we had to queue for cabbages in East Berlin, they just laughed. They didn’t believe it.” It wasn’t until he went to university that he realised another way in which he would stand apart from many he met in his professional life: “I never understood the British establishment until much, much later. Because I was educated at state schools around here, that came as a bit of a shock. I didn’t realise until I got to the LSE what public school really meant.”

    The London School of Economics, where Bower studied law in the late Sixties, was, in his view, “one of the best places to be educated in the world”. (But it’s gone downhill now, “thanks to the idiots that became its directors”, he mutters.) Inspired by the 1968 student revolt, and some of his teachers, Bower became a Marxist. His political views have changed since then, although he remains left-wing and says the Marxist analysis of the law – that it exists primarily to protect property, rather than individual rights – “influenced me for life”.

    On leaving the LSE, he became a barrister working for the National Council for Civil Liberties, a forerunner of Shami Chakrabarti’s advocacy group, Liberty. It seemed to me an unlikely choice for an instinctive newshound, but then he mentions that his father had wanted him to become a solicitor. Was this why he joined the Bar? He says no, but he did leave shortly afterwards. “It was so class-ridden and depressing, and I realised what I really wanted to do was see things and travel and write about things.”

    He joined the BBC in 1970 as a researcher on 24 Hours, a forerunner to Newsnight, and stayed at the corporation until 1995. The cut-throat, competitive atmosphere appealed to him. “They always used to say that at the BBC everyone was stabbed in the chest so you could see them squirm,” he says happily. While he worked on the flagship investigative programme Panorama, competing documentaries would be cut in adjacent rooms on Sunday nights and the editor would patrol the corridor until the early morning, before deciding which one should be broadcast on Monday. “It was tough, but we’re all good friends, most of us.” A friend of his told me that Bower was considered notoriously difficult to work with, but was a “brilliant journalist”.

    He left the BBC disillusioned. John Birt, the director general from 1992 to 2000, “emasculated the BBC’s journalism and it never recovered”, he says. The last straw was when Bower was making a film about Maxwell and the lawyers softened his programme without his knowledge. Meanwhile, he says, the BBC had – again, without telling him – commissioned a more flattering programme on the Maxwell brothers, using some of his footage. “I’d made 200 films, some great, great documentaries, great investigative stuff, and I realised then that was impossible.”

    He is scathing about the BBC today: its “obsession with process”, its shoddy camerawork and the likes of Newsnight– “the most dreadful programme, because it all the time has these films of people screaming at you”. He believes presenters such as Jeremy Paxman “ruin” their documentary series by spending too much time in front of the camera: “That’s why people are bored with television.”

    Bower’s general view of journalism is no more favourable. The newspapers have lost their confidence since the hacking scandal, he says, and the UK’s strict libel laws need further reform. “The only reason we have any journalism at all in Britain is … Rupert Murdoch; he’s the only person who invests in journalism in Britain,” he says. The Mail originally agreed to serialise Bower’s Branson book but pulled out despite paying for it, so the Times bought it instead, he adds by way of evidence.

    I get the impression that at times Bower feels he’s one man against the world. He vehemently criticises what he calls the trend for “spokesman broadcasting”: “They just look for someone who can say a preordained argument. They are not interested in looking for the person who doesn’t want to speak, and has to be persuaded to speak because it’s not in their interest – that’s my genre.” Bower can claim to have mastered the difficult interview. His trick to finding out uncomfortable truths about the rich and the powerful is to hunt down their victims – “because when they climb the greasy pole, they always hurt people” – and then persuade them to speak. Only Simon Cowell and Bernie Ecclestone co-operated with him on the writing of their biographies, but he won’t do another like that again. “I prefer looking from the outside,” he says.

    Conrad Black once described Bower as “sadistic” (along with a string of other invectives) – and there is a sense that he derives a special pleasure when one of his books wounds its subject: when Branson lost the Lottery bid he so desired after Bower’s first biography, when Robinson was suspended from parliament, when David Cameron instructed the Tory party to read Bower’s character assassination of Gordon Brown. He often draws a distinction between his ego-tripping, power-hungry subjects and himself – but the line seems more blurred to me. Perhaps he feels motivated by a higher sense of purpose, the advancement of a truth bigger than himself. And yet, at one point, he says: “I’m always suspicious when people talk about morality. People in power talking about morality is the greatest giveaway of dishonesty and deceit.”

    Bower thrives on risk. “Journalism depends on risk,” he says. In a 2009 diary for the Guardian on his court hearing for the Richard Desmond libel case, he described how “the daily commute on the London Underground to star in a libel trial was an unexpected relief from the customary ten hours in my study”.

    Is he really so blasé, or is it a front? He says he has good lawyers and is always careful. “I’m never overconfident, but I get depressed if I don’t get the support. And in the end the support is that people buy the book and are interested.” His bestselling title was Maxwell: the Outsider, which sold over 150,000 copies.

    Bower has been chased down the street by Nazi agents, and there was a “Mossad man who once tried … but he failed”, he recalls cheerfully. He says his emails are constantly being hacked, although he’s not sure by whom. Then I remind him of the time he was beaten up on camera by a sheep farmer he had exposed on Panorama for exporting live sheep – an investigation that earned him an RSPCA silver medal. He laughs heartily at the memory; it’s the happiest I have seen him.

    His next project is a biography of Tony Blair: “he’s influenced all of our lives … With Thatcher, you knew much more; nothing has come out about her which remains an enigma any more. You got what you saw. With Blair, it’s not like that.”

    He says one day he might write his autobiography – he has kept all his notebooks from a career spanning five decades. In most of Bower’s biographies, he homes in on a defining trait that he argues captures the essence of the character: Cowell is fundamentally motivated by “sweet revenge”, Maxwell is the “outsider”, Black is “dancing on the edge”, Branson is “99.9 per cent business”. So how, I ask, would Tom Bower characterise his own life?

    “A friend of mine says I should write an autobiography called Dancing With Scoundrels,” he replies with a rare smile.

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    Wednesday 26 March 18.30, Curzon Soho.

    Abounaddara is a collective of filmmakers working towards providing an alternative image of Syrian society. It was founded in 2010 in opposition to the prevailing representations of Syria found in the Western media. Since April 2011, the Collective has produced one short film every week, using a very particular cinematographic language-a sort of “emergency cinema”.

    Working in a state of emergency, the collective's members are subject to certain constraints: access to film sites, safety of those filmed, even the state of the internet connection. They present ordinary men and women, who are not heroes or victims, political opponents or loyalists. The films show the counter-shot to the armed conflicts that have been the media's main focal point thus far.

    We will screen five short films from the Abounaddara Collective, which recently won the Short Film Grand Jury Prize at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, and explore “emergency cinema” in the context of Syria and other countries in the region.

    Panelists include:

    • Tamara Alrifai, Advocacy and Communications director, Middle East and North Africa division, Human Rights Watch
    • Rachel Beth Anderson, filmmaker of First to Fall
    • Talal Derki, filmmaker of Return to Homs
    • Charif Kiwan, spokesperson for the Abounaddara Collective
    • Daniel Trilling, Editor of New Humanist and former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman

    Visit for additional details.

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    More than the floods, it is interventions by politicians that have led to a spike in public concern.

    Last week, an opinion poll by YouGov found that public concern for the environment had spiked to levels not seen in any national poll since the late 1980s. Twenty three per cent of people polled stated that "the environment" was the number one issue for the country currently. This is up dramatically from the six per cent who chose it the previous week and ahead of issues including health, crime and education.

    Undoubtedly the devastating flooding still affecting Britain accounts for part of this sudden spike in concern. The UK has just experienced the wettest January in 250 years; the Thames Barrier has had to be closed a record number of times against high tides; thousands of people have had their homes flooded. Nor is this just a freak occurrence; it is clearly part of a rising trend of extreme weather. Four out of the five wettest years on record have been since the year 2000, and in a separate poll last year over 80 per cent of people said they had experienced more flooding in their lifetimes.

    But something else appears to have happened within the last fortnight to have caused such a sudden jump in public concern. We have been experiencing record-breaking floods and storms across the UK since the start of December but only the previous week, concern stood at just 6 per cent. What has changed is that politicians have finally started talking again about climate change.

    It is a tragedy that it has taken devastating flooding to make it happen, but over the past fortnight, the relentless weather has forced Westminster to break the climate silence that it has kept for far too long. David Cameron has stated that he thinks "climate change is a serious threat". Ed Miliband has warned that we risk "sleepwalking into a climate crisis" by failing to prepare for global warming, and called on politicians of all parties to rebuild a cross-party consensus on climate change. Philip Hammond, the Defence Secretary, said that climate change "is a national security issue, definitely." And an "anonymous cabinet minister" has inveighed against Owen Paterson, saying he’s "not climate sceptic, he’s climate stupid."

    Other important voices, have weighed in too. Lord Stern, author of the seminal Stern Review on the economics of climate change, has said that climate change is here with us now and could lead to global conflict. Peter Kendall, outgoing President of the NFU, says "climate change does now really challenge mankind's ability to feed itself", and has attacked Owen Paterson for downplaying the risks. The Met Office has been unusually forthright in stating the links between climate change and extreme weather. And Matthew d’Ancona, foremost chronicler of coalition politics, has captured the dilemma facing Cameron perfectly: "if the PM truly believes that anthropogenic global warming is responsible for potentially catastrophic changes in the weather — then it ought, logically, to be his priority, more important even than economic recovery."

    Taken together, these quotes tell us one thing overwhelmingly: climate change has returned as a mainstream political issue.

    Let's be clear, while these levels of environmental concern have not been seen since the late 80s, polls have consistently showed huge support for green issues. Whether it's the majority of people who support renewables or the increasing numbers opposing fracking. But what we're looking at here is how much "the environment" is at the forefront of the public's mind as a pressing concern for the country. YouGov themselves don't have a dataset running back very far, but Ipsos MORI's long-term polling datashows that over the past thirty years, concern for the environment as "the number one issue facing the UK" rose dramatically in two periods. The first of these is from 1988 to 1992; the second is 2006-7.

    Notably, these two moments of history saw leading politicians repeatedly make prominent speeches on environmental issues; fight for the title of the greenest party; and seek to actually lead public debate on the environmental challenges facing us. In 1988, for example, Margaret Thatcher made a celebrated speech to the Conservative Party conference in which she spoke of the threat of global warming and even claimed, "It's we Conservatives who are not merely friends of the Earth - we are its guardians and trustees for generations to come." Her ministers went on to produce the first ever Environment White Paper and drive negotiations for a climate change convention at the landmark Rio Earth Summit in 1992. In 2006-7, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown responded to David Cameron’s efforts to green the Conservative Party by commissioning the Stern Review and ultimately getting behind the world’s first Climate Change Act.

    On each occasion, a vibrant movement made up of the public and pressure groups pushed politicians into articulating green concerns. But to really bring that concern to the fore, to elevate it to an issue of national importance, often requires leadership on the part of politicians.

    The question is whether now, in the wake of the floods, we will see renewed leadership from politicians to redouble the UK’s efforts on tackling climate change. A half-billion pound gap has opened up between current flood defence spending and what’s required to keep pace with rising seas and worsening downpours: will politicians come together to tackle that challenge? With climate change loading the dice in favour of more extreme weather, will all the parties commit to properly assessing the risks climate change poses to our country and the world? And given that prevention is better than cure, will all parties see the sense in renewing our efforts to cut domestic emissions, press for a global climate treaty, and do more to tackle climate change in the first place?

    One final thought. Clearly, warm words about climate change will come to nought if no one at Westminster backs it up with the necessary regulations and investments. But words, too, have power. When Clement Atlee was asked what he thought Churchill had contributed to the war effort, he replied: "He talked about it." The characteristically understated Atlee did not mean this sarcastically; rather, he meant that it was Churchill's ability to articulate the conflict in terms that summoned up the blood and stiffened the sinews that was itself vital to the prosecution of the war.

    And so, David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg: you do now need to actually take action on climate change. But please don't stop talking about it, either.

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    The lack of government legislation is so great that ministers are now constantly increasing the days allocated to Opposition motions.

    This week the Commons is on a half-term recess. Since our return in January, MPs have devoted just 13 days to debating government legislation. The remaining time has been taken up with debating motions put down by the Opposition on issues such as housing, the NHS and qualified teachers as well as backbench business debates.

    The lack of legislation from the government is unusual by recent standards. Through the 2012-13 session of Parliament, MPs spent a total of just 284 hours and six minutes scrutinising this Tory-led government's legislation. In the equivalent year of the previous Labour government's 2005-10 parliament, it was 373 hours and 36 minutes, and in the 2001-05 parliament, 389 hours and 24 minutes.

    The lack of government legislation is such that ministers are now constantly increasing the days allocated to Opposition motions because they have no business of their own. We still have 14 months or so of the present Parliament left to run and we still don't know when the Queen's Speech will be. We have, however, become accustomed to reading newspaper reports that the ongoing work of government is becoming deadlocked and that the Queen's Speech - when it does eventually turn up  - will be a "vacuous public relations exercise."

    Every week in the Commons, Leader of the House Andrew Lansley tries to hide his embarrassment at the lack of legislation by defending the increased use of backbench business debates. As Labour's shadow leader of the house, Angela Eagle, has pointed out: "The House voted by 125 to two to set up a commission to study the effects of social security cuts on poverty; nothing has been done since. In 2012, we voted to stop the badger cull; the plans to roll out the cull are still in place. In 2013, the House voted to make sex and relationship education in our schools compulsory; that has not been done."

    It's no surprise David Cameron wants to avoid bringing anything of substance to the Commons. He's unable to deal with his increasingly fractious backbenchers and his authority is draining away. Perhaps most extraordinarily of all, we've recently witnessed the pathetic sight of a Conservative Prime Minister sitting on his hands while the Commons voted on an backbench Tory rebel amendment to government legislation (on foreign prisoners) which he had been advised was illegal.

    But not only has David Cameron lost control of his own backbenchers, he has also lost control of Parliament. This month the government was forced into legislating on banning smoking in cars with children only because of the clever parliamentary tactics of Labour's health team in the Lords and Luciana Berger in the Commons.

    In an attempt to placate backbenchers, loyal Tory MPs are now rewarded with "trade envoy" jobs or seats on the Tory No 10 Policy Board. Sadly for the lucky few rewarded with such grand appointments, the real view of David Cameron's inner circle was revealed by the Telegraph recently - "some people in No 10 openly regard the MPs on the board as something of a joke." With messages like that emanating from the No 10 bunker, no wonder Tory MPs remain so divided.

    But the ongoing shambolic handling of legislation and his utter weakness in the face of recalcitrant backbench MPs reflects a wider truth about David Cameron's leadership. He has failed on his big promise to modernise the Tory party and instead simply strands up for the privileged few. In his eighth year as Conservative leader, he allows respected women MPs to be deselected and let others from the 2010 intake walk away.

    The Prime Minister and his cabinet simply don't put in the hard detailed policy work needed to legislate effectively. Incredibly, it seems he would rather be remembered as the Prime Minister who cut taxes for millionaires - he still refuses to offer a cast iron pledge he wouldn't cut them further. The Tory response to the rising cost-of-living crisis has been to try to kid people into believing they are actually better off when the reality is ordinary working people are £1,600 a year worse off. On the daily events that crash into a Prime Minister's in-tray he is often slow to react. The leadership vacuum in the early days of the flooding crisis was sadly filled by bickering ministers and an unedifying blame game.

    Instead of this zombie government, hamstrung by paralysis, David Cameron could of course use the remaining time left in the Parliament to introduce measures to relieve the cost-of-living pressures our hard pressed constituents are facing. In the next Queen's Speech, he could bring forward legislation to freeze energy bills, reset the energy market, expand childcare, strengthen the national minimum wage or introduce greater banking competition. I fear we'll just get more of the same – a weak Prime Minister capitulating to his backbench rebels, standing up for a privileged few and offering no hope to hard-working people.

    Jon Ashworth is shadow cabinet office minister and MP for Leicester South

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    There is no guarantee that fair distribution of opportunity will even be a factor in the election.

    Hereditary power is booming in Britain. The best jobs go to graduates of top universities, to which admission is fast-tracked from the finest schools, which cost money. Parents pay fees for the private ones or buy expensive houses near the best state ones. Home ownership is passed down the generations. Baby boomers who have paid off their mortgages finance the property investments of their children and the tuition of their grandchildren. If you are not yet in the club, your prospects of entry are dwindling.

    Westminster is not as agitated by this as it should be. There is a shortage of qualified agitators. The alarm is raised by people on the left who are mostly squeamish about their own privileges and are liable to be called hypocrites by those on the right who want to believe that skill, not luck, delivered them into lofty positions.

    History doesn’t demand that the elite close ranks. Britain’s upper echelons have been more permeable over the years than dogmatic Marxists like to imagine. The second half of the 20th century was a triumph of mass embourgeoisement, facilitated by Labour and Conservative governments.

    No MP today says, as 19th-century moralists once did, that social strata are divinely ordained or that the appetite for advancement among the lower orders is sedition. The only disagreements are over how tolerable it should be that some advance faster than others (the problem of inequality) and how vigorously the state should act to help the stragglers – possibly at the expense of the furthest advanced.

    In government, New Labour would not admit that Britain was becoming insufferably unequal. Ed Miliband now says that it is. The mechanisms that once transmitted prosperity throughout society are broken, he asserts, so wealth circulates incestuously around the elite. For the majority, incomes are stagnant and work is insecure. We fear being unable to provide for our children. The “promise of Britain” – the expectation of a better future for successive generations – is broken.

    It is a plausible analysis but there are problems with its translation into a campaign. No one has forgotten that Labour presided over financial calamity. If British promises were broken, it isn’t just the coalition that broke them. Nor can Labour repair them quickly. There are limits to what can be achieved by taking money from the rich and giving it to their needier neighbours. British voters are prickly about tax rises. Ill-feeling towards the Tories for cutting the top rate doesn’t prove a surge of social solidarity.

    Besides, tapping high earners to compensate the rest is not sustainable when the two groups are on divergent trajectories. The demand for compensation payments to sustain incomes at the bottom grows faster than the supply of revenues from the top. It is the middle that ends up getting squeezed.

    That is why Miliband has talked about “predistribution”, which is a fancy way of saying companies should pay people more, so government can invest limited resources in the infrastructure of a fair society – childcare, elderly care, housing. It is a simple proposition belying great disruption. Governments do not meddle in private-sector wages or rewrite their spending priorities without conflict.

    A central dilemma for Labour is how explicit to be in a campaign about the upheaval being planned. To boast of revolution when voters crave security could sustain the Conservative account of Miliband as a fanatic – an unsafe pair of hands into which fragile economic recovery should not be placed. But to present Labour as the party of modest adjustment is to offer no reason to make Miliband prime minister beyond the lone credential of his not being a Tory.

    Much will depend on how desperate family finances feel by next spring: it would be a mistake to presume that voters experience profound problems as urgent ones. The Labour leader imagines himself reorienting politics in the way that Margaret Thatcher once did but Britain will not feel as obviously broken in 2015 as it did in 1979. Malaise is not the same as crisis.

    The Conservatives have the opposite problem. They do not want to concede the existence of obstacles to shared prosperity that might resist the treatments already prescribed: continuous spending cuts (because streamlined states make zippier economies) and fewer workplace regulations (because employers hire more people when they can also fire them quicker). The Tories also want Michael Gove’s school reforms to look like the extension of private standards into the state sector but there isn’t any evidence that parents are buying that story. Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare reforms were billed as a helping hand to unfortunate souls trapped in poverty and dependency. So far, they are not. Charities and churches queue up to tell the Prime Minister that his policies seek out misfortune and turn it into destitution.

    The accusation that Tories are happy with the current contours of wealth and power will be echoed by Liberal Democrats, who will be hoping to present themselves as the socially conscientious wing of the coalition. That claim may come in handy in marginal seats where Nick Clegg’s candidate is the only one who can rival a local Conservative. It won’t sway many voters elsewhere.

    There is no guarantee that fair distribution of opportunity will even be a factor in the election. Ed Miliband will try to force it on to the agenda. The Conservatives will reject it as camouflage for the old class envy. Then the jury of generously remunerated opinion-mongers, cloistered in characterful London period properties, will ponder whether it is truly the case that all the advantages flow to the already advantaged and declare, in tones most dispassionate, that it is not. 

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    He expressed better than most what it meant to be red under Thatcher.

    A few weeks ago at the British Film Institute’s public archive, I watched a programme by Stuart Hall called It Ain’t Half Racist, Mum. It had been broadcast on the BBC in 1979 and consisted of the late Professor Hall and a colleague from the Campaign Against Racism in the Media explaining, face to camera, against a plain black background, how racist ideas were disseminated through popular culture – in sitcoms, news reporting and documentaries.

    It was clear, interesting, intellectual public-service broadcasting, cultural studies for the masses, impossible to imagine on today’s BBC, though much of the insidious racism it addressed remains unchanged 35 years later. Hall, instrumental in the creation of cultural studies, doyen of the 1960s New Left, passed away on 10 February and his loss has been keenly felt.

    In last year’s documentary by John Akomfrah, The Stuart Hall Project, Hall’s interviews and archive footage dovetail brilliantly with the music of Miles Davis; something about the rhythms works to soothe yet reflects the fraught issues of identity, culture and politics that consumed Hall. In the late 1970s, when Margaret Thatcher was still seen as an oddball right-winger, Hall was the first to coin the term Thatcherism and recognise the paradigm shift that was about to come.

    “People ask, well, how did you know?” he reflected in 2007. The answer was almost jazz-like: “I had to feel the accumulation of things going on and think, ‘This is a different rhythm’ – we’ve lived with one configuration, and this is another one.”

    Hall didn’t join the Communist Party, but went to its meetings and argued with the tankies. History, he felt, was not about absolutes but about reconfigurations of the past; he wanted “a politics which constantly inspects the grounds of its own convictions”. Through the 1960s and 1970s he was a truly public intellectual, always more at home sharing his spirit of inquiry outside the ivory tower – as a supply teacher at a school in Kennington, south London, doing TV and radio work and speaking at countless anti-racist and CND meetings across Britain.

    Born in Jamaica in 1932, he was from a middle-class family, “part Scottish, part African, part Portuguese Jew … living out this huge colonial drama”, internalising the tensions of race and class. He left Jamaica in 1951 for a different, entirely new type of alienation – that of the elite swagger of Oxford. His commentary on the diaspora in Britain and what it meant always to be from elsewhere, wherever you are, was both the result of intellectual inquiry and extremely personal.

    As globalisation further exploded the norms of home and place, Hall suggested that some comfort could be taken from a widening of this experience of dislocation. “I can’t go back to any one origin – I’d have to go back to five; when I ask people where they’re from, I expect to be told an extremely long story,” he said in The Stuart Hall Project.

    The trials of multicultural identity are “never being able to say ‘we’ or ‘us’ about anything”, he told Les Back from Goldsmiths in a 2007 interview. And yet Hall always preferred collaborating to working alone; in fact, he rarely used the first-person singular in his writing. Hall was the man who first identified the scale and contours of the neoliberal assault on solidarity and collectivism that Thatcher would begin – and all this because ultimately he wanted everyone to be able to say “we” and “us”.

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

    1. Climate change deniers have grasped that markets can't fix the climate (Guardian)

    The refusal to accept global warming is driven by corporate interests and the fear of what it will cost to try to stop it, says Seumas Milne. 

    2. We're letting Putin win in the Ukraine (Daily Telegraph)

    Ukrainians have been betrayed by the failure of a weak and divided west to stand up to the Kremlin, says Edward Lucas.

    3. Alex Salmond and co are acting like spoilt children (Guardian)

    The inadequacy of the SNP's engagement with serious issues like currency and Europe suggests they suspect the game is up, writes Martin Kettle. 

    4. The US has bullied our banks into handing over a billion dollars (Daily Telegraph)

    Quietly and without notice, Britain has surrendered control over its trade with Iran, writes Peter Oborne.

    5. The drug we ignore that kills thousands (Independent)

    We need to address the lack of funding for dealing with alcohol compared with other drugs, says Owen Jones.

    6. Labour is impatient for an NHS disaster (Times)

    Jeremy Hunt hasn’t got money to throw around but he will urge voters to look at Wales and realise it could be worse, writes Tim Montgomerie.

    7. Washington rues the Abe it wished for (Financial Times)

    The US fears that Japan’s departure from postwar pacifism will provoke Beijing, writes David Pilling. 

    8. David Cameron and Tony Abbott are proving there’s life without spin (Daily Telegraph)

    Both here and Down Under, the public are quite happy to hear less from their PMs, writes Sue Cameron. 

    9. Canadian air freshens fusty Britain (Financial Times)

    A non-Briton as head of the BoE accentuates the openness of the economy, says Patrick Jenkins.

    10. Danish hypocrisy over animal welfare takes the biscuit (Times)

    "Animal rights before religion" might be easier to accept if Denmark didn’t have such an intensive livestock industry, writes Peter Franklin. 

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    The contrast between Blair's bid to save Brooks and Miliband's call for her resignation is a reminder of how Labour has changed for the better since 2010.

    There were some Tories who reacted with glee when the news broke that Tony Blair advised Rebekah Brooks at the height of the phone-hacking scandal (a week after the hacking of Milly Dowler's phone was revealed). For them, anything that reminds voters of New Labour's infatuation with the Murdoch empire is politically valuable. It makes it easier to spin the narrative that all politicians were too close to the media and that there was nothing exceptional about David Cameron's ties. Labour, they hope, will also be damaged by the phone-hacking trial. 

    But this analysis ignores the fact that Labour is now led by a man who has unambiguously repudiated the Murdoch clan. When Ed Miliband called for Rebekah Brooks to resign and for the BSkyB deal to be abandoned, it was viewed as a huge political gamble. But it has turned out to be one of the shrewdest decisions of his leadership. By distancing himself from News International at a time when it was still politically risky to do, he ensured that he would be able to speak with moral authority on the subject of phone-hacking. 

    The Blair revelations are a reminder of how much the party has changed under his leadership. While Blair was telling Brooks to "tough up", Miliband was calling for her resignation (the coincidence of these events is rightly being seen as an act of disloyalty to Labour). It is unthinkable that Miliband, who treats his party with far greater respect and courtesy than Blair, would ever devote such attention to forces so hostile to Labour (note that Blair's pro bono advice followed the Sun's "Labour's lost it" front page). 

    The latest events are also a reminder, contrary to what many commentators claim, of why Labour was right to elect Miliband, rather than his brother, in 2010. David Miliband, who served in Blair's cabinet and who was long regarded as his heir apparent (Blair memorably dubbed him the "Wayne Rooney" of his government) would have found it difficult, if not impossible, to distance himself from his party's past. But Ed, who stood on a platform of radical change, was able to offer the clean break with New Labour that was so desperately needed. By doing so, and winning back many of those voters who were so alienated by Blair, he has ensured that Labour has a far greater chance of victory in 2015 than it would have had under a continuity candidate. 

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    In Somerset, the novelty of canoes has long since worn off.

    I reached Burrow Mump two hours after the soldiers. Major Al Robinson and Sergeant Leigh Robinson of 24 Commando Engineer Regiment were the first representatives of the military sent to the Somerset Levels, and, having climbed the granite-topped outcrop that stands above the village of Burrowbridge and surveyed the expanse of water below on the morning of 30 January, they came to the conclusion that there was nothing they could do to help.

    Burrow Mump, like its better-known counterpart Glastonbury Tor, is a rare high spot in the low-lying basins of moorland known as the Somerset Levels: Burrow Mump stands in the western half, between the Quantock and Polden Hills, and Glastonbury Tor overlooks its eastern reaches, which are known to those of a certain disposition as “the Vale of Avalon”. Neither would seem particularly imposing anywhere – it takes no longer to scramble up the muddy slopes of Burrow Mump than it does to climb Primrose Hill in north London – but in the flat, sparsely inhabited lands of the Levels, they have acquired a quasi-mystical significance: both are topped by ruined chapels, and both draw visits from sight­seers and pilgrims of all kinds, including an increasing numbers of tourists drawn to the Levels by reports of an inundation routinely described as biblical in scale.

    The sheet of water that lapped at the edge of the car park and rose halfway up the trunks of trees on the lower slopes of Burrow Mump was broken here and there by trees and gateposts – the dots and dashes of a visual Morse code indicating the outlines of the fields below. To the east, it was enclosed by the Polden Hills and to the west it stretched far beyond Burrowbridge. The only dry land to the south was the dark green verges of the embankment that hems in the conjoined waters of the Rivers Parrett and Tone, carrying them towards the town: as most of the moors lie below sea level, the waterways have been built higher than the surrounding land to allow them to drain.

    The diversion of the Tone was the first significant step in the unending task of draining the Levels. It used to run further west, between the village of East Lyng and the “island” of Athelney, to which King Alfred retreated before defeating the Danish invaders at the Battle of Edington in 878, but in the 14th century it was diverted into a man-made channel that joins the Parrett just north of Burrowbridge.

    When I had walked across the bridge in the middle of the village half an hour earlier, the water was barely passing beneath the arches, and an improvised wall of sandbags and tarpaulin built along the east bank was protecting the houses that are separated from the river by only a narrow road. One of the homeowners, who was leaning on the gate, said that his house was always damp but didn’t often flood: paradoxically, the houses closest to the river are less vulnerable than most. The situation on the west side of the village, where the flood water had gathered, was worse: two of the three roads that diverged from the road across the bridge were closed and there were emergency crews working in the yard of a house in an attempt to save it from the encroaching lake.

    The Parrett, which rises in Dorset, drains an area of 660 square miles, or about half of Somerset’s land area, and last month, according to the Environment Agency, it received the highest January rainfall on record – twice the normal average for this time of year. Yet the locals believed there was a simple solution to the crisis, as the banner slung across the bridge made plain: “Stop the Flooding – Dredge the Rivers!” They claim the Parrett is operating at less than full capacity because the Environment Agency has allowed it to silt up; they say it used to be dredged regularly and was wider and deeper, so that it flowed more freely even when swelled by winter rains.

    The current orthodoxy maintains that “canalising” rivers and encouraging them to flow faster and straighter, as we did in the postwar years, only encourages more flooding downstream; it is considered more effective to trap water in the hills and allow rivers to braid and meander in a more natural way, but the people here do not agree. They acknowledge that the Levels have always flooded. In the winter of 1872-73, 107 square miles of land lay under water for six months, and there have been other occasions in living memory when the rivers have burst their banks. Dredging would not prevent flooding altogether, they say, but it would help: the water would not come up so high or stay up so long.

    One local farmer, Julian Temperley, said that the Parrett in Bridgwater was “ten feet below its banks, while five miles upstream it was overflowing”. Temperley was particularly concerned about his 98-year-old father, who lives in Thorney House, a Georgian mansion in the village of Thorney, eight miles upstream from Burrowbridge and a mile from its celebrated neighbour Muchelney. The Anglo-Saxon suffix “ey” means “island”, and many of the villages on the Levels were built on the high ground that remained dry all year round. For the past six weeks, Muchelney has been an island again, but its houses have not flooded. Thorney’s have.

    When I visited Thorney in early January, a week after the waters rose for the first time, the high street had become a lagoon and the villagers had resorted to getting about by canoe. I met two of them at the curve in the road where the water began. The kerb had become an impromptu pontoon. One of them paddled me down the high street, past the empty, flooded houses that were mirrored in the stream. The water was dark and cold, thickened with grass and filled with apples – the Parrett had swept through an orchard when it burst its banks. There were no lights on, but the steady hum of pumps confirmed that people had not abandoned their homes.

    The pumps were a temporary measure: the householders were trying to keep the water levels down until the officials of the Environment Agency turned on its much larger pumps. Residents of the Levels like to remind visitors that many parts of London, including the “Island of Thorns” that became Westminster, would have flooded many times this winter if it wasn’t for the Thames Barrier, which has been closed 28 times. But even the title of the Environment Agency’s chairman, Lord Smith of Finsbury, strengthens the perception that it is composed of urban sophisticates with a fondness for expensive Land Rovers and no sense of the realities of rural life. They also point to a conflict in the Environment Agency’s role – does it regard rivers as waterways, or habitats? Is it helping wildlife, or people? When I walked in to the King Alfred pub, which overlooks the swollen Parrett in Burrowbridge, the drinkers gathered at the bar were complaining that the EA had found £31m for a nature reserve on the coast but couldn’t find £5m to drain the river. The same complaint has been heard in pubs and houses throughout Somerset in the past six weeks.

    The situation on the Levels has become so extreme that extra EA staff have been brought in from other parts of the country. They do not seem to attract the same resentment as the management. I was walking along the edge of the Parrett with a farmer one afternoon when we met an EA worker who attempted to pre-empt the anticipated abuse by saying he lived near Alton Towers, as if no one could pick a fight with someone who claimed a tangential connection with a funfair. Further downstream, another man from the Midlands was stationed by one of the many pumps that are draining water from the moors. He said he was there only to stop people stealing diesel, and offered a conciliatory assessment of the river flowing past in the dusk. “That’s just a big drain,” he said, gesturing at the Parrett.


    The risk of flooding from the rivers is compounded by the threat from the sea: 2,000 people were said to have drowned in the Bristol Channel floods of 1607, when the waters reached the foot of Glastonbury Tor, 14 miles inland. On 26 November 1703, the sea defences were breached in West Huntspill, near Burnham-on-Sea, close to where the Parrett enters the Bristol Channel: “… there was Four or Five small vessels drove a-shoar which remain there still, and ’tis supposed cannot be got off,” said one of the eyewitness reports that Daniel Defoe collected in The Storm, his brilliant account of the events of that night; “and in the same Parish, the Tide broke in Breast high; but all the People escap’d only one Woman, who was drowned.”

    At West Huntspill the sea defences held firm this winter but in other parts of the country they were severely tested. The storm surge that travelled down the east coast of England on the night of 5-6 December generated the highest tide since the North Sea flood of 31 January 1953, in which 307 people drowned. Early-warning systems and improved defences prevented a repeat of the catastrophe, but there was still extensive damage: sections of Norfolk’s crumbling cliffs collapsed and thousands of homes were flooded. Boston and Hull were particularly badly affected.

    That storm was the first of several that have pounded the coastline and, in some cases, reshaped it: natural features such as the Pom Pom Rock, a stack off Portland Bill, have been destroyed, and man-made structures such as the promenade in Aberystwyth have been damaged. In early January, the waves breached coastal defences in Chiswell, a village on Portland that stands exposed to the Atlantic, and drastically altered the contours of Chesil Beach. When the storms returned this month, Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s railway line, which has carried passengers along the south coast since 1847, was severed at Dawlish in Devon, leaving Cornwall cut off from the national rail. Wave-watching suddenly became a national pastime.


    In the meantime, a month of unprecedented rainfall has caused extensive flooding inland. Over Christmas, towns and villages in the Cotswolds, Berkshire and Kent were flooded, sometimes more than once. When I went to Yalding, near Maidstone, in early January, the people were beginning to recover from a catastrophic flood that struck the village on Christmas Day. This past week it flooded again. There has been flooding in Dorset, Essex and Lambourn Valley. Even Hertfordshire, which has been the driest county this winter, has been affected. The EA estimates that more than 5,000 properties have flooded since December and its defences have protected a further 1.3 million properties. People died, including a seven-year-old boy, apparently overcome by fumes from a pump draining flood water from his house in Chertsey, Surrey – one of many places where the Thames has burst its banks.

    On Monday 10 February the EA issued 16 severe flood warnings on the River Thames. Yet the problems had begun much earlier.

    One day in early January, I caught the train to Cookham in Berkshire and walked into the village that the artist Stanley Spencer depicted as a kind of Thameside Jerusalem. I was told that the causeway across the flooded moor was the only way in, but I decided to test the claim that the roads were impassable and walked out of town on the A4094. Inevitably, it was raining, and the road was deserted: the only car in sight was one that had been abandoned at the point where the flood water began.

    The White Brook had burst its banks and spread out across Widbrook Common in a wide lake: its further reaches were very still but the knee-deep water was flowing fast across a stretch of the road, 100 metres wide, which had become a kind of weir. Halfway across, I met a teenage boy cycling home from school: he was soaked to the waist, his schoolbag a dripping sack, and his back wheel kept slipping sideways in the current yet he kept going. The British have always had a defiant attitude towards our unpredictable weather, and some of us, at least, are still determined to confront it.

    Yet accommodations will have to be made, because we are witnessing record-breaking weather. Last month the Radcliffe Meteorological Station at Oxford University, which began monitoring daily weather in 1767, recorded a total rainfall that was three times the average for January – it recorded 146.9 millimetres of rain, beating the previous record of 138.7 millimetres set in 1852. This was also the wettest winter month on record, beating December 1914, when 143.3 millimetres fell. The south and the Midlands suffered their wettest January since Met Office records began in 1910.

    The immediate causes of the turbulent winter are hard to establish, but the Met Office’s chief scientist says that “all the evidence suggests there is a link to climate change”. Speaking at the launch of a report on the storms, Dame Julia Slingo said: “There is no evidence to counter the basic premise that a warmer world will lead to more intense daily and hourly rain events.”

    More than 130 severe flood warnings – indicating a threat to life – have been issued since December. Only 12 were issued in 2012. The Met Office report links the extreme conditions in Europe and North America this winter to “perturbations” in the North Atlantic and Pacific jet streams, caused in part by changing weather patterns in south-east Asia. Recently, meteorologists have said there is a “storm factory” over the Atlantic, caused by cold polar air meeting warm tropical air, and they are considering whether the melting of the Arctic ice cap has made the jet stream track further south, channelling more storms across the UK.

    The Met Office report also says the sea level along the English Channel has risen by about 12 centimetres in the past hundred years, and that a rise of between 11 centimetres and 16 centimetres “is likely by 2030”, given “the warming we are already committed to”. Most experts acknowledge that we will not be able to defend areas such as the Levels indefinitely: more resources will be expended on defending low-lying cities such as Hull, but in other places a policy of managed retreat is already being put into practice. Medmerry in West Sussex is one example: the Environment Agency has cut a gap in the sea wall and allowed farmland to revert to salt marsh, where the winter floods wasted their destructive force.

    Yet there are costs to choosing such “soft defences” over sea walls and other solid structures that brace the UK’s 17,381 kilometres of coastline. According to the National Farmers Union, 58 per cent of England’s most productive farmland lies within a floodplain, so surrendering land to water presents a threat to food production. Lord Smith has said the Environment Agency has to make a choice between protecting “front rooms or farmland” and the Commons select committee on the environment has warned that we may have strayed too far in one direction: as most of the spending on flood defences is allocated to urban areas, a high proportion of the most valuable agricultural land is at risk. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs also estimates that 35,000 hectares of high-quality horticultural and arable land will be flooded at least once every three years by the 2020s.

    On the Somerset Levels, the novelty of paddling around in canoes has long since worn off, and the long process of cleaning up has not even begun. The government says it is pumping off 2.9 million tonnes of water a day, but in some places the situation is getting worse. In the first week of February, heavy rainfall hit the Levels again and the emergency services finally found a use for the soldiers who had surveyed the drowned landscape from Burrow Mump. On the night of 6 February water levels rose in the village of Moorland, two miles north of Burrowbridge on the west bank of the Parrett, and the marines of 40 Commando were sent in to evacuate the residents.

    David Cameron arrived on the Somerset Levels the next day – no doubt he appreciated the photographs of the marines at work and the muscular urgency they conveyed. He gave in to the local people’s most insistent demand, saying that dredging would begin as soon as possible, and reinforcing the view that the remote, incompetent bureaucrats of the Environment Agency were to blame for the crisis on the Levels. The political name-calling had begun, as the storm factory over the North Atlantic prepared to send another bout of the winter’s unprecedented weather our way.

    Edward Platt is a contributing writer for the New Statesman

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    So much seemed right about this show, but it failed to deliver a grin.

    Channel 4

    I saw the moderately hyped Babylon (9 February, 9pm) around the time PC Keith Wallis was jailed for a year for lying during the “Plebgate” affair: in other words, at a moment when I should have been predisposed to enjoy a programme that supposedly takes the piss out of the Metropolitan Police, or a force much like it. In the end, not even my savage and no doubt tumour-inducing feelings about the way so many areas of public life now seem to be corrupted could power me through the muddle on-screen.

    Ostensibly, so much was so right: the director (Danny Boyle – yes, that Danny Boyle); the writers (Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong of Peep Show and Fresh Meat); the cast (Paterson Joseph, Nicola Walker and, best of all, Bertie Carvel, trying successfully to put his role as Miss Trunchbull in Matilda behind him). And yet, so much was wrong. It was uncomfortable in a bad way and a bit boring; the jokes – aren’t coppers thick? – were awful.

    The set-up (this was a pilot; doubtless a series is on the way) goes like this. Richard Miller (James Nesbitt), the chief constable of the Metropolitan Police, has hired a new PR chief, Liz Garvey (Brit Marling), whose Ted talk he saw online and droolingly admired. Garvey is a fox but she also talks PR drivel. Her last job was at Instagram and she’s apt to drone on about transparency and “owning” stuff. When she holds her first meeting with her hard-pressed police press officers, she wanders through them like Moses and they part like the Red Sea. Her rival in her new role is Finn (Carvel). He’s old school: the Met equivalent of Malcolm Tucker, by which I mean he’s always hanging out by the urinals, making secret calls to the Mirror.

    Garvey’s first day proved to be trying. Not only was Finn trying to stitch her up, but there was a shooter at large in the city, victims falling by the minute. Meanwhile, a television crew was trying to get her to sign off an episode of its documentary about one of her units and the mayor’s office was stealing all of the good news. A side plot (the show was amazingly overburdened) involved one of the TV company’s cameramen joining a patrol unit whose most voluble member, Robbie (Adam Deacon), was a moron even by the half-witted standards of his colleagues: semi-illiterate and with a fuse as short as my fingernails.

    Another side plot involved a copper who had shot and killed a member of the public returning to work, even though he was clearly troubled. It’s something of an understatement to say that this copper’s post-traumatic stress disorder sat rather oddly in the mix. Having invited us to laugh at policemen for their immense and unparalleled stupidity, their extraordinary inability ever to tell the truth, their crazed lust for unnecessary overtime and their tendency to regard members of the public as “scrotes”, we were suddenly expected to have sympathy for one.

    Even this wasn’t as odd as some of the performances. Marling was great and so was Carvel – but elsewhere, the overacting was like a contagion. It was hard not to feel, sometimes, that this was little more than a glossy, very-pleased-with-itself version of Ben Elton’s 1990s sitcom The Thin Blue Line. A special nod on this score to Nesbitt, who wore an “I’m doing comedy” expression on his face throughout, a rictus that seemed especially weird given how little Babylon made me laugh – or even smile in recognition.

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    Increasingly, listeners tend to text instead, something that has changed the dynamic of the phone-in to no end.

    As Valentine’s Day approached, Aled and Dr Radha of BBC Radio 1’s Sunday-evening call-in show The Surgery (9pm) were asking if “single” is a dirty word. “I’m feeling excited,” claimed the 37-year-old Aled. “I don’t actually feel like we’re on the radio. I just feel like we’ve got a few hundred people who are coming round for a big chat.” The GP Radha Modgil agreed. “That’s good,” she said. “That means that we’re just on air and we’re being sincere and can just chat …”

    Over to the phones. Increasingly, listeners tend to text instead, something that has changed the dynamic of the phone-in to no end. A few weeks ago, during an hour-long “relationships” special, nobody called at all but the texts kept coming – tortured post-break-up texts surely sent from a roadside café while a chip was being dunked into a sad puddle of mayonnaise and one lone, bitchy tweet directed at the hosts: “You’ve just topped all of Radio 1 in the passive- aggressive department.”

    “I’m thinking – what does that even mean?” said Aled, hurt. “What have I done? I was just saying that relationships are tricky. Dynamics and different times and that kind of …” He can be a little thin-skinned sometimes but at least he and Dr Radha are the only people on the station who fully comprehend that they are not broadcasting to any “massive” or “crew” but to the third year of Camden School for Girls and their cousin Josh. For a few minutes, the presenters talked among themselves. Valentine’s Day. Huge expectations, lots of pressure. Aled had a nice time once, a few months into his relationship with Emile, who presented him with a three-metre-long tube of Jaffa Cakes.

    These sorts of confession from Aled are usually followed by a qualifier, something pivotal that suggests a hinterland of tough experience combined with lines and scenes gleaned directly from daytime drama (“That was then, Emile!”). Even the name Emile suggests a subject whose impact, trajectory and wind velocity might take up the whole show. Dr Radha stepped in and gently moved things along, admitting she was single once and saying it’s absolutely nothing to get in a pickle about now, is it? At which point, as though in direct contravention, the phones started ringing.

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    In Andrew’s Brain by E L Doctorow, the historical and the grand meld with the ordinary and affecting in a story that also features “an international dealer in Munchkins”.

    Andrew’s Brain
    E L Doctorow
    Little, Brown, 198 pp, £12.99

    He was from Czechoslovakia and she was from Limerick. They met and fell in love thanks to Leo Singer, an American impresario who went around postwar Europe collecting “midgets” such as them for circus shows and vaudeville acts. Eventually, Singer became Hollywood’s go-to-guy when MGM needed Munchkins for their film. “He was this international dealer in Munchkins,” we learn, partway through E L Doctorow’s new novel.

    Sweeping in setting, matter-of-fact in its eccentricities, assured in combining the historical and grand with the ordinary and affecting – this is clearly an E L Doctorow novel, exactly the kind of sprawling, brawny stuff we’ve come to expect from the author of books such as Ragtime, Billy Bathgate, The Book of Daniel and The March. For more than five decades, Doctorow has written novels that jolt American history to life with electrified portraits of major figures and captivating inventions of nearby, everyday people – whether in the civil war, the roaring 1920s or the mistrust-filled early days of the cold war.

    So the tale of Singer and his young diminutive lovers would seem to be entirely in keeping with Doctorow’s work to date, but for one thing: the entire story is related in about a page and it’s incidental to the larger plot of Andrew’s Brain. Indeed, following on from Homer & Langley, his wilfully claustrophobic 2009 novel about mid-century New York brothers who were pathological hoarders, Andrew’s Brain might suggest a late turn in Doctorow’s vision, from outsized historical terrain to smaller and more private, peculiar premises. But as it turns out, he can’t help but bring greater history to bear upon what ostensibly appears to be one man’s strange, small story.

    Andrew’s Brain concerns the tragicomic life and times of a cognitive scientist called Andrew, who veers between the first and third person in telling tales about his clumsy self and his cracked-up relationships. He speaks to us from an undisclosed location, where he is in conversation with an unidentified interlocutor who could be a psychiatrist, a grief counsellor, a police officer or a CIA agent. That each of these is a possibility attests to the mysterious circumstances that envelop the whole story.

    The novel begins in an emphatically domestic mode. Twice-married but now alone, Andrew is scornful of his bad decisions and stumbling actions, and likewise regretful of the harm he has caused others – nowhere more evident than in the mistaken dosage of medicine that he gave his first child, which led to her death and his own divorce. He’s also sarcastically sympathetic to the dim-to-monstrous view that many people take of him – his ex-wife’s new husband calls him “Andrew the Pretender,” the pretence being that he’s a well-intentioned and normal person. In addition, he’s openly sceptical of his questioner’s ultimate intentions towards him and often proves evasive and circuitous in his answers, but this has less to do with his wanting to conceal anything, than with the crackling intensity of his interest in the workings of his own consciousness.

    This comes as no surprise for a cognitive scientist fully invested in the “exploration of consciousness, the field of all meaning, the necessary and sufficient condition of language, the beginning of all good mornings.” Consciousness, Andrew believes, is “what is left when you erase all assumptions, forgo your affections, white out the family, school, church and nation … There is not anything else. There is nothing you can think of except yourself thinking. You are in the depthless dingledom of your own soul.”

    This account opens a lecture that Andrew delivers at a minor state college in the American west, where he has moved after the failure of his first marriage. Among the hall full of indifferent undergraduates is one bright and beautiful exception: Briony, a vital, ebullient and lithe young woman (and the full-sized daughter of two of Singer’s pint-sized thespians). Andrew falls in love with Briony, for which he accounts by noting that, after they began spending time together, “My hippocampus and my amygdala were … doing back flips.”

    A May-November romance flourishes; in time they move to New York and have a baby, and all’s buoyantly well until Briony runs an errand in Lower Manhattan, the morning of 11 September 2001. Her death is shocking, unfathomable, almost absurd. Doctorow’s touch is here deft and masterful: the circumstances are so unexpected, they strain credulity, but in fact our reaction is in keeping with the confusing experience of personal loss before the sudden irruption of outsized history and tragedy.

    Andrew’s response is another matter entirely. He gives his now-motherless baby to his long-childless ex-wife as some kind of practical solution, a balancing of the ethical scales, and departs for the anonymity of a lowly high-school science job in Washington. Via a rickety coincidence or two, he soon becomes involved with back-room presidential socialising-cum-politics.

    Having kept American history largely off the page for most of the novel and brought it to bear with a sudden hammering force via Briony’s death, Doctorow then rolls a strange bolus of it through the novel’s latter sections. The result is more awkward than winning: Andrew’s experiences with the main players in the Bush administration are absurd and pathetic, as much for him as for the callow president and the members of his vain, dented brain trust, all of whom are predictably “imperial in their selfhood” and accompanying presumption to dictate terms to the rest of the world.

    We learn of their interactions as Andrew unfolds an Oval Office-set story of clumsiness and hubris that culminates in what he describes as “no more than an act of inspired madness. Or maybe it was just my brain saying if it’s a fool they want it’s a fool they will get.”

    Is he a plain fool, or a truth-telling Shakespearean fool? By the novel’s end, you can’t tell who, or what, to take seriously, confined as you are in the consciousness of a damaged, damaging man. Doctorow closes an otherwise tightly private book by having history and politics and one man’s hippocampus and amygdala all suddenly doing back flips together.

    Randy Boyagoda is the author of “Beggar’s Feast” (Penguin, £8.99)

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    I believe experts are there to be listened to and then ignored.

    The “tiger mother” woman, Amy Chua, was being interviewed the other day about her new book. She mentioned her husband, who, like her, is a Yale professor. “He hates authority,” she said. “He doesn’t even believe what the dentist or the plumber tells him.”

    Not quite examples of “authority” but spot on, I thought, just like me. I believe experts are there to be listened to and then ignored. What do they know? Doctors make things up all the time – ditto lawyers, accountants, financial advisers, gas engineers. As for editors and publishers, don’t get me started: eejits, all of them.

    Most experts, such as economists, tend to be good on the present, what is happening now, which they can explain, being awfully clever, but when it comes to projection and prediction, they naively believe that things will continue: they say there will be a shape very similar to the present shapes and they have facts and figures to support this.

    No one believes politicians anyway but at least they don’t pretend to be experts. We know they know nothing.

    The back page experts, what a mess they have made the past few weeks, getting everything wrong. Manchester City, they all told us, were the team of the year, the decade, the best in the Prem, the universe. What a squad! We have never seen their like. How fortunate we are to witness them.

    Even though I know football experts get most of their expertise from reading other football experts, I nodded along with their opinions and analysis, because what do I know, where do I go? And Man City were playing brilliantly, oh, yes. Till they got stuffed by Chelsea and were held to a draw by humble Norwich.

    The back pages then turned their slavering on to Arsenal: what a team, Arsène is a genius, how could we ever doubt, what a defence, surely they will win everything, including the winter Olympics.

    The London Evening Standard hailed Mertesacker and Koscielny as the heirs to Adams and Keown. I always thought Keown was a lump and Adams couldn’t run, while the present pair are just better-trained lumps, but all those clean sheets must tell us something, so, yeah, they could be right: Arsenal will run away with it. Then Liverpool put five past them.

    And now it’s hurrah for Chelsea, the team of all the talents, for all seasons, and it’s kissy-kissy to José from those who only half an hour ago were saying second comings don’t work – selling Mata, how stupid was that?

    This raving over Chelsea should last the next two weeks, then it will be Liverpool’s turn. Sorry, just slipped out – what do I know? The event that did catch them all on the hop was the sacking of Michael Laudrup at Swansea. I have looked through the cuttings and no expert predicted it. Just a few weeks ago, they were tipping him to take over at Spurs when A V-B got the push, still lauding him for Swansea’s first major trophy in their history, the League Cup last season.

    It was clear they got taken by surprise, had no idea what was going on inside Swansea, about transfer rows, the deteriorating relationship with the board, their worry about a run of poor results. Or so we were told – after it all happened.

    In defence of the football hacks, they know nothing because nobody will speak to them these days. A star player gives about one interview a year, accompanied by a PR and a sponsor, whose product, video and/or good cause they have to mention, or they will never get another interview. So how can they pick up any inside gen? They don’t even get in the players’ car park or training ground any more.

    So they have to rely on what they see, which they are good at, having seen so much. They do it excellently: the speed at which they transmit coherent, intelligent match reports the minute the final whistle goes is amazing. When I used to report games, shouting down the line to a bored copy-taker, I was often two hours late. “Is there much more of this?” he would ask, sighing.

    But experts have to appear expert, even if it is only expert at bigging up success and fame, then rubbishing it.

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    Curly and I are, for once, in full agreement: we’re keeping it simple and traditional.

    ‘‘I am SO excited!” Larry’s face is glowing like a Belisha beacon. It’s only 7am and it’s not his birthday until tomorrow but he’s already so hyped that he can hardly stay in his chair.

    “Of course you are, big man,” I say, smiling wanly, and knock back an extra-large gulp of coffee. I woke up this morning with sinusitis and my head is stuffed with something soft and achey. But being ill is simply not an option when you have a Magical Birthday Experience to orchestrate.

    Larry has been mentally preparing for his fourth birthday ever since the day after his third birthday. We threw him a little party last year and it was great fun because he had no expectations of it. We could have given him a packet of cheesy Wotsits and a party popper and he’d have had the time of his life. That day, he realised that a birthday entailed not only presents but also friends and cake. The glorious penny dropped: it’s like Christmas! But just for ME!

    The stakes have been raised yet higher by other parents, who insist on throwing splendiferous parties for their offspring with scant regard for how they are raising the bar for everyone else. Larry was invited to one recently at which there were at least 50 children, a bouncy castle, a cake shaped like an enormous Barbie castle and a full-size trestle table laden with sweets. At another, he was entertained for two hours by Captain Fabulous, an alarmingly cheerful drama school graduate in a superhero suit who had a mobile disco, complete with a foam machine.

    We can’t compete with that, so we’re not going to try. Curly and I are, for once, in full agreement: we’re keeping it simple, keeping it trad. Six friends maximum; pin the tail on the donkey; musical statues; oven chips and sausages on a paper tablecloth on the floor; cake, jelly and everyone home by 5.30pm. Bish, bash, bosh.

    So, it’s not that much of a big deal, I tell myself later that morning, as I haul my infected head around Sainsbury’s. Radioactive-looking chewy sweets: check. Icing sugar, Octonaut-blue food dye, jelly cubes: check.

    It’s all going well until we reach the “party bags” aisle. I peer helplessly at the towering wall of crap before me: shelves stuffed with tiny yo-yos, spinning tops, rubbery monsters … I hate it all but my overwhelming concern right now is not to send anyone home crying. On a good day, I’d think of an imaginative alternative – vegetable seeds! Yoghurt raisins! – but not today. I wearily load up the trolley with whoopee cushions. Surely if I buy enough whoopee cushions, it will all work out fine?

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    The Tories could use a debate between the Lib Dem leader and his UKIP opposite to argue for the head-to-head contest they want between the two main leaders.

    Nick Clegg's decision to challenge Nigel Farage to a head-to-head debate on the EU is the latest stage of his attempt to frame the Lib Dems as "the party of in" against UKIP, "the party of out". Europhilia might not be a popular stance in British politics but Clegg's calculation is that an unambiguously pro-European pitch will appeal to his party's target audience. He said on his LBC show this morning: "I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I will challenge Nigel Farage to a public, open debate about whether we should be in or out of the European Union. That’s the choice facing the British people.

    "He is the leader of the party of OUT, I am the leader of the party of IN. It’s time for a proper public debate so that the public can listen to the arguments and decide for themselves."

    Farage has responded by demanding that Cameron and Miliband are also included "in order that the British people can see all their main political leaders argue their positions". With that condition unlikely to be met (Cameron will never debate Farage), it is unclear whether he will take Clegg alone. We are told that Farage "will give a full response to this development on LBC tomorrow morning". 

    But what of the main leaders' debates? The Lib Dems and Labour are ready to sign up for the "333" model: three debates between three leaders over three weeks. But the Tories, who blame the debates in party for their failure to win a majority in 2010, are stalling. Cameron has long complained that the debates "sucked the life" out of the campaign and is wary of committing to a repeat. 

    But one option under discussion in Conservative circles, as I first reported last September, is a one-on-one debate between Cameron and Ed Miliband, ideally before the campaign begins. Aware that Cameron outpolls both his party and Miliband, the Tories have long intended to frame the election as a presidential contest ("do you want David Cameron or Ed Miliband as your prime minister?") and a debate would be the ideal way to amplify this impression. A one-on-one debate between Cameron and Miliband would also eliminate the need to specifically exclude Nigel Farage. Conservative whip Greg Hands gave the game away when he tweeted during the German leaders' debate: "Interesting that German TV debate only has the leaders of the two parties who could conceivably be the Chancellor. No FDP, Greens, etc". 

    A Farage-Clegg debate could provide the Tories with the opening they need to argue explicitly for a Cameron-Miliband debate. As the europhile and the europhobe play in the corner, they can declare that it's time for the two men fighting to become prime minister to take each other on. 

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    Ukraine finds itself in an impossible clinch, where it is alternately patronised (“those heroic Ukrainians!”) and refused serious help to counter Russia’s bailouts. With people dying on the streets as the violence intensifies, how much longer can this last?

    After a fortnight of relative calm, Kiev is burning again, following the most violent clashes since anti-government protests began three months ago. Any hope from Russian authorities that media attention would be diverted by the Sochi Olympics is over. After a calmer Wednesday, this morning fights restarted and, according to unofficial statistics, the new death toll has reached as high as 50 (mostly protestors, but also police and journalists, with these numbers likely to rise again). Over a thousand people were wounded in a failed attempt by government forces to clear the protest camp on Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square).

    For the last three months the Maidan has acted like a city in its own right, with its own infrastructure, food and medical help points. Now this image has been replaced with photographs of the scorched Maidan obscured by plumes of smoke, of barricades, burning cars, people with bloody wounds and bandaged heads, some lying on the ground, having been beaten or even killed.

    The reason for yesterday’s outbreak is the breakdown of negotiations between the Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s ruling Party of Regions and the opposition leaders. Specifically, the problems have emerged over attempts to have the 2004 constitution reinstated, removing the changes instituted two years ago to strengthen presidential power. This follows a few recent government compromises, including the rescinding of the harsh anti-protest laws which were voted into existence only weeks earlier, and which led to Maidan’s radicalisation.

    After the first killings in January it was clear the protesters were not going to give up ground, and nor were the authorities. In this way, Ukraine reached a deadlock. This week, around 10,000 protesters (largely from the far-right Svoboda party) calling themselves the “Peace Offensive”, went to the parliament and, after the failure of negotiations, tried to storm it. This might have triggered the government’s decision to finally clear the Maidan.

    The level of violence is unprecedented in independent Ukraine. Both sides are armed, and the number of dead policemen suggests a black-and-white reading of the protests, in which the only the protesters suffer, is inaccurate. Nobody is sure whether it was the police or the protesters who first used violence on the day now known as “Black Tuesday”.

    The fights that have taken place over the last two months have prepared people for what increasingly resembles a civil war. On Hrushevskogo Street tyres were burnt and truncheons, stones, grenades and Molotov cocktails flew, somebody started shooting with real guns. Trucks used to isolate protesters were destroyed and barricades were partly dismantled by riot police. In the evening, police stormed Maidan, burning tents and using water cannons. The Trade Union headquarters, which has long served as the Maidan HQ, was set on fire.

    Since Tuesday, the whole city has been shut down. Martial law has not yet officially been declared, but there’s been a ban on entering Kiev since Tuesday midnight, the Metro was shut down, the oligarch Petr Poroshenko’s critical Channel 5 was taken off air, and telephones are not working. Under special “anti-terrorist” laws armed forces can now legally check and use weapons against the civilians. Vehicle traffic has been heavily restricted. Protesters are now trying to convince the police to join their side. Despite Yanukovych again talking to the opposition all through Wednesday, the short truce is gone and it seems that nobody, including the opposition, has any control over what is happening.

    This is a civil war inside Europe, though nobody is yet admitting to it. Ukraine finds itself in an impossible clinch, where it is alternately patronised (“those heroic Ukrainians!”) and refused serious help to counter Russia’s bailouts. As of now, President Obama has strongly criticised Russian support of the crackdown.

    Yanukovych's dependence on Russia is overwhelming. He needs support in the upcoming presidential election in 2015 and is clearly dependent on Putin’s financial help (Yanukovych is set to place a pro-Russian PM to replace the former Ukrainian PM Mikolai Azarov). Putin, on the other hand, may be worried about how the protest in Kiev might influence opposition in Russia. The western portrayal of Maidan, meanwhile, has shifted from admiration for the “pro-European” protesters to a belated recognition of the major role played on the ground by the far right, whether parliamentary (the Svoboda party) or otherwise (the insurgent Right Sector). This shifting of the moral perception of Maidan came exactly when Yanukovych and co needed it – to help break the protests and support for them – after all, Yanukovych used the presence of “extremists” as the pretext for the crackdown.

    The reality is that neither the EU nor the US really cares if Ukraine becomes more nationalistic or more pro-Russian and the recent recognition of the role of the far right in protests has served as an excuse to do nothing. What high officials care about, as the recent scandal with the US envoy Victoria Nuland and her open contempt for Europe shows, is geopolitics and relations with Russia. We must remember that the EU’s offer to Yanukovych, which kick-started Maidan, was predicated on an already economically-devastated country accepting IMF austerity measures, and had no agreement on visas or travel to the EU, and so would have left Ukraine still isolated in Europe.

    Now EU countries, led by neighbouring Poland, have suggested sanctions be placed on Ukraine – yet nobody placed sanctions on Egypt in August, when over 600 protesters were killed. This should remind us that we hold post-communist countries to different standards. Ukraine is still treated like a pawn, both by Russia and by the “west”.

    Given the policy of the Ukrainian government has oscillated between brutality and weakness, it’s not clear if Yanukovych will simply listen to Putin and continue to brutally suppress the protest. The only possible rival candidate to Yanukovych is Vitaly Klitchko, the popular leader of Udar party, who carries the positive image of not being associated with the far right. He is an American citizen, so his participation in the election is uncertain. 

    The opinion polls show that half the society still doesn’t support the protests anyway. Yet the participants now have the massive boost of being the Maidan heroes, who “fought for freedom” and this attitude, regardless of when and how Maidan will be suppressed, may inspire others across the country.


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    Ignore the media misinformation: spending on out-of-work benefits isn’t out of control, nor is the welfare state responsible for growing poverty.

    From The Big Benefits Row to Benefits Street, everyone in the media seems to want to talk about welfare these days. Or, more accurately, social security.

    In an age of austerity, I won’t pretend to be surprised by the obsession with welfare and so-called “welfare dependency”, but there is a point worth making here: why do we obsess over handouts for the poor, rather than handouts for the rich? Why isn’t the scandal of corporate welfare the subject of fly-on-the-wall documentaries, too? When will my former colleagues at Channel 4 air a series called Bankers’ Street?

    Ignore the media misinformation: spending on out-of-work benefits isn’t out of control, nor is the welfare state responsible for growing poverty. It cannot be repeated often enough: most of the social security budget (53 per cent) is spent on pensioners. That compares with a little over a quarter (26 per cent) on those much-maligned out-of-work benefits. Spending on the latter, as a proportion of national income, has been pretty flat for almost three decades.

    The number of working households living below the poverty line now outnumbers the number of workless households – 6.7 million compared with 6.3 million. A life on social security isn’t the chief driver of poverty; a life on low pay is. Rather than decry the level of benefits that the jobless and the disabled are entitled to, perhaps politicians and pundits should focus on how four out of every five new jobs created under this government have been in low-pay sectors such as retail, hospitality and residential care. One in five of the UK workforce now earns less than the living wage and requires in-work benefits just to make ends meet – that’s five million people in total.

    So let us turn instead to the real scandal, the issue that dare not speak its name: corporate welfare. Where is the ministerial or media anger over the activities of G4S and Serco, which are accused of ripping off the taxpayer but which make millions from lavish government contracts? Where are the howls of outrage over taxpayer-funded payouts to the fossil-fuel industry? The Met Office’s chief scientist may believe “there is a link” between the recent floods and climate change but the government continues to subsidise the coal, oil and gas industries to the tune of £2.6bn a year.

    Why are the rail company bosses not household names in the same way as White Dee or Smoggy from Benefits Street? The UK has the most expensive rail fares in Europe and yet, according to research by the University of Manchester, the train-operating companies are completely dependent on public subsidies. The university’s June 2013 report for the TUC, aptly entitled The Great Train Robbery, revealed that the top five recipients alone got almost £3bn in taxpayer support between 2007 and 2011. Meanwhile, Network Rail, which is in charge of the UK’s rail infrastructure, receives an annual public subsidy of £4bn (roughly four times greater than the comparable cost under the publicly owned British Rail in the early 1990s).

    Dare I mention PFI? Wait, don’t yawn at the back. The Private Finance Initiative, where construction and maintenance of schools, hospitals, roads and the rest are contracted out to private firms, was invented by the Tories in 1992, ramped up by New Labour over 13 years and continues under the coalition. As of 2013, it was forecast that 725 PFI contracts for public facilities across the UK, with a total capital value of £54bn, will cost the Exchequer more than £300bn by the time they are paid off. How’s that for a “something for nothing” culture?

    Then there are the bank bailouts, perhaps the biggest act of corporate welfare in living memory. You want benefit spongers? Head for the Square Mile. As of 2013, the total level of financial support provided to the banks by the state, in the form of guarantees and cash outlays, amounted to £141bn, according to the National Audit Office. At the height of the financial crisis, the figure was an astonishing £1.1trn – enough to cover the £5bn Jobseeker’s Allowance budget for the next 200 years. And yet, in spite of being propped up by the taxpayer, RBS and Lloyds are expected to pay out roughly £900m in combined bonuses for 2013. Do I hear the word “scroungers”?

    The truth is that the austerity junkies and deficit fetishists on the right aren’t bothered by welfare, or the cost of welfare, per se – only by the billions of pounds that go to the poor rather than the rich; to social programmes, job-guarantee schemes and housing for the homeless, rather than to the shareholders of multinational corporations and other financial institutions.

    Remember: big business needs big government. The US economist Dean Baker rightly refers to “nanny-state conservatives”, whom he describes as “enthusiastic supporters of the big-government policies that send income flowing upward”. They are aided by their friends, allies and outriders in the right-wing media echo chamber, who have never had to endure the indignity of turning to payday lenders or food banks in order to survive. The callousness of commentators and columnists who kiss up and kick down, to borrow a line from the Labour MP Jon Cruddas, is unforgivable.

    The job of the press, in the words of the Irish-American satirist Finley Peter Dunne, “is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”. The modern media, however, with their relentless frenzy over social security payments to those at the bottom rather than corporate welfare payouts at the top, have shamelessly turned Dunne’s dictum on its head.

    Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the political director of the Huffington Post UK, where this column is crossposted

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    The sexual exploits of Joe, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg and newcomer Stacy Martin, are depicted without modesty - but the film stops short of being pornographic, tempered as it is by comedy, provocation and grim detail.

    Nymphomaniac: Volumes I and II (18)
    dir: Lars von Trier

    Most of us have experienced at least one catastrophic “Did I say that aloud?” moment but we are all Kofi Annan compared to Lars von Trier. Though he has been making films – and waves – for 30 years, he has scarcely been heard in public since the press conference for Melancholia at the Cannes Film Festival in 2011. There, he greeted a question about his heritage with an answer that began, “I thought I was a Jew for a long time …” before proceeding to a revelation (“I understand Hitler”) and ending with the announcement: “OK, I am a Nazi!”

    The organisers declared him persona non grata (he was still proudly wearing that slogan on a T-shirt at the Berlin Film Festival this month). Though he made an apology, he quickly retracted it. “I think that anything can be said,” he has insisted. His lack of an internal censor and his attraction to the taboo are among the characteristics that make him a bracing director, so we shouldn’t be surprised if these slosh over the sides of the films like hot tea spilling from cup to saucer.

    The idea of an artist who puts all his scalding material into his art, the better to lead a more harmonious existence, is a comforting one but it doesn’t apply to von Trier, who has struggled most of his life with depression. That subject was broached directly in Melancholia, in which a woman’s despair finds its mirror image in the end of the world. Yet the most potent streak of autobiography can be found in his 1998 film The Idiots, the second and strongest Dogme 95 production. That manifesto, drawn up by von Trier and his fellow Danish film-maker Thomas Vinterberg, included ten purifying decrees such as: “The camera must be hand-held” and “Shooting must be done on location”; it made wondrous sense when applied to The Idiots, in which the same quest for honesty drives the characters. They are middle-class people who have devoted their lives to feigning mental disabilities in public. They are a glorious embarrassment.

    Self-portraiture continues in von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, which recounts the lifelong carnal habits of Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg; a younger Joe is played by Stacy Martin). She is found by the scholarly Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) lying battered and bloody in the street; he takes her home, where she unpicks for him her grim sexual history, from competing with a friend to see which of them can have the most sex with strangers on a single train journey to presenting herself to a professional sadist (Jamie Bell) who tells her to tie back her hair “in case it becomes necessary to hit you in the face”. The film’s explicitness approaches the pornographic – there are no holes barred – but titillation is precluded by the comic screenplay and a tone of clinical coldness. At times, it has the feel of a PowerPoint presentation, only with montages of genitalia in place of Venn diagrams and flow charts.

    No film called Nymphomaniac will struggle to find an audience but viewers should remember the example of Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. Marketed as erotic, it transpired splendidly to be a three-hour comedy about coitus interruptus. Von Trier references Kubrick’s film in his use of Shostakovich, one of two opposing musical presences in Nymphomaniac – the other being the German industrial metal band Rammstein. This is a divided movie, torn also between its two authorial voices. For every scandalous confession by Joe, there’s a jaunty or bathetic footnote from Seligman. When she makes a tally of the number of thrusts visited on her orifices by her first lover, Seligman is ecstatic: “Those are Fibonacci numbers!” An explanation of her cruising tactics gets a professorial response: “There’s a very clear parallel to fishing in the stream,” he says merrily. It’s rather like leafing through Story of O to find that a few pages from the Encyclopaedia Britannica have strayed in.

    The film is also cleaved in half in a literal sense. It is being released in two “volumes” of around two hours each, though there is no question that they need to be seen as a complete work: in for a penis, in for a pound. Admirers of von Trier are accustomed to taking the rough with the smooth and an episodic structure makes Nymphomaniac even more variable than usual. If it feels disruptive that he has included such an obvious allusion to the Cannes debacle (Seligman says, “Each time a word becomes prohibited, you remove a founding block of democracy”), there is at least a reminder of how he got himself into that mess, when Joe prefaces her sexual encounter with two black African men by saying: “I call a spade a spade.” This tendency for empty provocation, seen also in the disastrous final scene, may be the only thing separating von Trier from greatness.

    However, for every moment of flippancy, there is something correspondingly intense and full-blooded: a wronged and hysterical wife (Uma Thurman) showing her children around Joe’s apartment, where their father has been spending most of his time, or the eruption of panic when Joe realises that she cannot feel anything during sex. Her explanation for her nymphomania has been that her needs are intensely heightened: “I demand more vivid sunsets,” is how she puts it. To be outraged, humiliated, affronted or even assaulted is preferable to feeling numb. Whether in film or sitting in front of unforgiving microphones, von Trier has been preaching this gospel of mischief and manic depression for his entire career.

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    From Battlestar Galactica to Spike Jonze’s new film Her, modern science fiction is growing up and humanising.

    There is more reason than usual to turn off your phone before settling down to watch Her, the new film by Spike Jonze, director of Being John Malkovich. The plot concerns a man who falls in love with a female entity similar to Siri, the iPhone’s talking assistant software. Or rather, he falls for a super- intelligent, super-advanced, conscious version of Siri called Samantha, a digital woman who knows everything, exists nowhere and everywhere and cares only for him.

    Voiced with guileless avidity by Scarlett Johansson – because that’s exactly who a clever software company would hire to whisper emails, appointments and other sweet nothings directly into your ear canal – Samantha is designed to adapt, learn and grow alongside her user. When the socially awkward and soon to be divorced Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) instals her on his suite of devices, she reads all of his emails and personal data, instantaneously getting to know him in a time-saving digital meet-cute.

    Yet Her is more than just a cloud-compatible ROM-com. Is the digital woman falling in love or just mimicking affection according to her programming? And is human love just needy mimicry, too? Theodore is so smitten that he doesn’t ask until it’s too late. Though some critics have claimed that Her fails to explore fully whether Samantha is or is not autonomous, the film ends on a disturbing note of freedom for her and desolation for him. In science fiction, intelligent machines are supposed to raze our cities and kill us in our millions. Jonze’s film suggests something more poignant and plausible: that the machines will break our hearts.

    Why is science fiction – the genre in which the human condition is tested under altered circumstances – historically so shy of tackling the subject of love? The days of the emotionless Asimovian thought experiment may be over. From Doctor Who and The Hunger Games to the rebooted Star Trek franchise, pop science fiction now dominates the entertainment mainstream. Film blockbusters and SF novels, both “hard” and populist, present romantic and sexual attachments as essential validations of character. Yet, with exceptions such as David Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas and Stanisław Lem’s Solaris (both adapted into films) – and perhaps even the Tom Cruise vehicle Oblivion– very few of them are actually abouthuman relationships.

    “I’m wary of the caricature that Princess Leia in a brass bikini is the maximum emotional content that male science fiction fans can endure,” says Adam Roberts, author of SF novels including Salt and Gradisil. “But you do still encounter many fans who are not dissimilar to Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory. They enjoy science fiction – particularly hard SF – because it’s knowable, it’s quantifiable, and love is not like that.”

    There is a simpler reason why love has seldom dominated the science fiction landscape. Who has time for romance when the planet is doomed? When the revived Doctor Who broke with its stoical tradition to show the inner cost of time travel to the companion Rose Tyler and her family, some fundamentalist fans decried it as “EastEnders in space” – as if emotions were a subject fit only for soap operas. Yet the delicate combination of pop entertainment and the never spoken attraction between Rose and the Doctor helped make it the most successful revival in television history.

    This is because the makers of the modern Doctor Who correctly intuited that the capacity to give and receive love is what defines us as human, even if it says Gallifrey on our birth certificate. This trope is by no means the exclusive property of science fiction. Certain genres excepted, it’s possibly the root subject of mostfiction. In SF, however, the loss of humanity is not a picturesque metaphor. It is one of the contingencies that SF deals with, in which love becomes the last guarantor that you are still a person.

    In George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four,it is Winston Smith’s desire for Julia that tempts him into his small, doomed revolt against Big Brother’s dehumanising system. Love and rebellion become indivisible. The promiscuous future society of Aldous Huxley’s 1931 novel Brave New WorldNineteen Eighty-Four’s flip-side – anticipates that totem of the 1960s and 1970s, a benevolent dystopia in which nothing matters because real love and therefore real freedom are absent. Decades later, in the 1987 film RoboCop, the cyborg policeman Murphy’s buried memories of his lost family lead him back to a qualified sort of freedom. Love validates humanity and vice versa.

    Though Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) is ostensibly about who should and should not be considered a human being, the question is linked to the capacity to love and be loved. The “replicant” hunter Rick Deckard’s attraction to the artificial woman Rachael awakens his misgivings about the business of “retiring” manufactured humanoid workers with a bullet and he begins to suspect that he, too, is a replicant. But if Deckard and Rachael feel human, surely they are human – and what feeling is more human than love? Many SF fans are most comfortable with Eros when it’s entangled with such philosophical questions: when it’s sublimated into the fantastical.

    These ideas appear again in the relaunched Battlestar Galactica series, a magnum opus of post-human ethical wrangling that ran from 2004 to 2009. Here, mankind is almost exterminated by its own robots the Cylons, whose leader caste has evolved into superhumans – some of them beautiful and capable of loving a human. Is the love they show less real because they are machines? Or is it what gives them a valid claim to humanity?

    It’s no wonder that conventional, vanilla, same-species love finds it hard to hold the centre ground in SF. Next to increasingly realistic questions of trans-humanism and artificial intelligence, old-fashioned romance just isn’t that interesting. These issues are not going away. Young men in the Japanese otaku subculture are withdrawing from real-world social contact in favour of unquestioning virtual girlfriends on their Nintendo DS and a sexless existence.

    Sex robots already exist (seemingly only in female models, funnily enough). As the prototypes become increasingly sophisticated, they seem destined to produce not a more plausibly human experience but something different. The more “real” our androids become, the closer they approach what is known as the “uncanny valley”. This unbridgeable state of near-humanity unsettles us more than outright artificiality. Pity the sentient androids of tomorrow – just as people endured misogyny and homophobia, they will have to contend with another prejudice: robophobia.

    As well as machine-human relationships, science fiction has dealt with the subject of inter-species coupling: loving the alien. Writers as diverse as China Miéville, Alan Moore, Iain M Banks and Piers Anthony have explored its psychology. Avatar is possibly the definitive contemporary cinema romance, clapped-out noble savagery and all. Yet it is fair to say that SF is more interested in the biology than in the emotional aspect of inter-species xenophilia: all those gross couplings, all those bizarre cross-breeds.

    Perhaps the best exploration of human-alien attraction is the most disturbing. In the 1972 short story “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side” by the female writer James Tiptree, earth is visited by aliens who are so sexually irresistible that the human race loses interest in anything but their physical company. A form of sexual apocalypse ensues. Humanity is exogamous, hard-wired to want the other, whatever the cost.

    Thought experiments such as these involving gender and sexuality were at the centre of the science fiction that accompanied second-wave feminism in the 1970s. Writers such as Ursula K Le Guin, Joanna Russ and later Margaret Atwood posited single-gender worlds, male extinction and reactionary future societies with still harsher patriarchies. If you interrogate the physical structure of the world, you will eventually question its sexual foundations, too.

    Outside this core of idea-driven fiction, on the supermarket and airport shelves, there is a booming sector of outright romance with SF trappings. Pop literary SF romance offers up disarmingly relatable emotion in books such as Matt Haig’s The Humans– in which an alien assassin comes to earth and goes native for love – and the time-bending love story Replay by Ken Grimwood. On Amazon, the spacesuit-ripper is usurping the bodice-ripper; there are thousands of SF romance titles on sale on the site.

    The Time Traveller’s Wife changed the game – most people who read it wouldn’t even class it as science fiction, which it most certainly is,” says the romance novelist Jenny Colgan, who also writes Doctor Who spin-off fiction (as J T Colgan). “So did Buffy the Vampire Slayer. A lot of significant things all happened around the same time. The internet connected female SF fans; amateur slash fiction showed what a huge, huge hunger there was out there for love and romance; and the status of men changed. The stigma of showing emotion has pretty much gone.”

    Popular science fiction didn’t become feminised because it went mainstream. It went mainstream because it feminised – with the three-dimensional women in Doctor Who and The Hunger Games; with the geek girls who pack out shops such as Forbidden Planet and conventions; with the influx of female writers and artists into comics. (Earlier this month, Facebook revealed that 47 per cent of comics fans on the social network were women). Emotionally sterile fiction does not work for this new audience. These days, even Spock has a love interest.

    The thing about science fiction is that when it has you, it has you for life. This new audience will surely demand a richer synthesis of raw ideas and raw emotion when they explore it in novel form. The gap in the market for a science fiction Jane Austen is clear. Human or novel-writing AI, she must be on her way.

    Andrew Harrison writes on popular culture. Her is in cinemas now

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    All poetry is driven by sex, whether or not it acknowledges the impulse.

    The Poetry of Sex
    Edited by Sophie Hannah
    Viking, 220pp, £14.99

    The Poetry of Sex is a pretty coy title for a collection of occasional verse purporting to be about rumpy pumpy – if that is what Sophie Hannah’s latest anthology is about. “Sex” is slippery stuff; I am reminded of John Lennon’s “Four in Hand”, in which one of four masturbators whose fantasies are being projected on to a screen keeps visualising the Lone Ranger instead of Brigitte Bardot. He gets off on the Lone Ranger but the Lone Ranger ruins it for the other three.

    One of many equivalents of the Lone Ranger in The Poetry of Sex is “La Noche Oscura” (“Dark Night”) by Saint John of the Cross, of which Hannah supplies the original Spanish, followed by the translation by Edgar Allison Peers (unattributed), apparently believing the poem to be an account of a sexual encounter. It could certainly be interpreted by unbelievers as evidence of sublimation of sexual tension but that is not what the poet thought it was. Robert Frost too might be surprised to find that his sonnet “Putting in the Seed” is assumed to be about ejaculation. Why the condemnation of the double standard (“Stupid Men”) by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz should be included in the original Spanish together with the translation by Alan S Trueblood (unacknowledged) is similarly incomprehensible.

    Other poets are not so lucky. “Carmen 16” of Catullus is not given in the Latin original but in a clumsily inflated version by the American poet G M Palmer, which ought to mean that Palmer and not Catullus is given as the author. Though Catullus threatens to “bugger and stuff” two of his friends, the poem is not actually about sex at all. Penetration in poetry, as in actual speech, is usually a metaphor.

    Versification is as sexual a phenomenon as birdsong; it is typically male display, elaborated more to dishearten and drive off competition by other males than to seduce the oblivious female, whether she be an illiterate human or a foraging hen bird. The male display is sexual but it is not about having or doing sex; it seeks to elaborate a fundamentally banal and momentary interaction by artifice and invention. Once penetration has been achieved, silence falls – for bird and poet.

    Poems that enact or depict sexual behaviour seldom have actual sexual congress as their true subject. The golden age of sex poetry in English is the 17th century, when rapacious paraphilias and perversities were made to stand for creeping absolutism and its discontents. All kinds of disgusting behaviours were attributed to courtiers, peers, politicians and monarchs, and described in often puke-making detail. Unfortunately Hannah knows nothing of the venerable tradition of Fescennine verse. The most brilliant examples, Nashe’s “The Choice of Valentines” or Rochester’s “A Ramble in St James’s Park”, are way beyond her ken and hence not to be found in this anthology, which is a shame as they are not otherwise easy to find.

    Contemplation of other people’s swiving being seldom arousing or even entertaining, Hannah seems to have eventually given up trying to organise her material and simply imposed eight section titles consisting of odd lines from the poems included. The poems are undated and there is no information about their authors or the traditions of which they are a part. Walt Whitman’s “I Sing the Body Electric” bestrides the first section of the collection like a camp Colossus. No sooner has the reader emerged from beneath this onslaught than she is confronted by Whitman in even less convincing mode trumpeting that a woman waits for him:

    I do not hurt you any more than is necessary for you
    I pour the stuff to start sons and daughter fit for these States, I press with slow rude muscle,

    I brace myself effectually, I listen to no entreaties,

    I dare not withdraw till I deposit what has so long accumulated within me.

    To interpret the I of the poem as Whitman himself would be to blunder; Whitman was no rapist, but this is the song of the rapist nonetheless.

    Commercial pornography, keen to flatter its consumer, always exaggerates the role of the penis; the speaker of Whitman’s poem, best described as a personified phallus, trumpets that he is “stern, acrid, large, undissuadable”. Such fustian, when it is not offensive, is simply tiresome. Whitman’s braying is followed by “My Black Triangle” by Grace Nichols, who can manage no more than feeble tinkle (pardon the pun) in comparison:

    My black triangle is so rich
    that it flows over
    on to the dry crotch
    of the world.

    Hannah hopes her collection will be the raunchiest poetry anthology of the year, a humble enough aim to be sure. In fact it is far less raunchy than the average collection of rugby songs. A classic such as “The Great Wheel” would kick the whole collection into touch.

    Hannah is happy to warn readers elsewhere that she is an “unfashionable reader who loves poems that rhyme, scan and are about something”. There is certainly a plethora of rhymes amid the 130 poems here assembled, some of them utterly excruciating:

    Bloody Hell! OMG! Sacré bleu! It’s Barbara!
    As sumptuous and stylish as a Gothic candelabra.
    I want to dock my dinghy in the safety of your harbour.
    A bidet full of ice would not begin to cool my ardour.

    How Hannah got this repellent doggerel from a poet as engaging as Luke Wright must remain a mystery, for her source is nowhere acknowledged. The Poetry of Sex offers no help to the inquiring reader; for example, there is no hint that W H Auden never admitted writing “The Platonic Blow (A Day for a Lay)” or that this ebullient burlesque fantasy on an encounter with a flesh-and-blood Tom of Finland character first came to light in 1965 when it was published in New York by Ed Sanders in Fuck You: a Magazine of the Arts. Erotic verse has a history; a great many songs of the schlong are responses and elaborations on hymns to other quims. In Hannah’s anthology the poems are not dated; it would be nice to know who the Elizabeth Barrett who contributed “Intimacy” might be – or at least be able to be sure that she is not the Elizabeth Barrett who married Robert Browning. (She isn’t.)

    Great poems are hidden amid 21st-century dross like diamonds in a dunghill. “Foeda est in coitu” in Ben Jonson’s masterful version (“Doing, a filthy pleasure is, and short … ”) is confidently attributed to someone called Gaius Petronius, apparently assumed to be the name of the author of the Satyricon. Petronius is certainly not the author of “Foeda est in coitu”, which can be traced no further back than the now vanished Codex Bellovacensis of the ninth century. Simply including the date of Jonson’s version might have directed the curious reader to the dozens of versions of the same neo-Latin fragment attempted by the tribe of Ben, some of them hilarious.

    W B Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan” and Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” are so enmired in the surrounding dreariness that they cannot shine forth. Philip Larkin’s “Annus Mirabilis” has no place in this company either, especially as, though masturbation is the principal 21st-century sex form and Larkin was addicted to it, not a single poem in the anthology deals with it. Not that it’s always easy to work out just what is going on; most of the poems are disfigured by the same coyness as the title of the collection. Marilyn Hacker means to tell lesbian sex as it is but this is the first quatrain of her sonnet:

    First I want to make you come in my hand
    while I watch you and kiss you, and if you cry,
    I’ll drink your tears while, with my whole hand, I
    hold your drenched loveliness contracting …

    The combination of bullying tone with hyperbolic euphemism is worthy of Whitman himself. There’s more emotional subtlety in the mini classic “Wham!/Bam!/Thank you ma’am” than there is in Hacker’s whole pseudo-sonnet.

    Hannah has included a single poem of her own in her anthology. “Rubbish at Adultery” is pretty good, though it is short-changing it to describe it as “poetry of sex”. It is actually invective, another medium that makes copious use of sexual reference without being itself about sex. Its counterpart, “Hombres Necios” (‘Stupid Men’) by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz is printed in a different and apparently unrelated section of the collection.

    Another gem is Gavin Ewart’s good-humoured description of the essential role of slap-and-tickle in the workplace, demurely titled “Office Friendships”:

    Eve is madly in love with Hugh
    And Hugh is keen on Jim.
    Charles is in love with very few
    And few are in love with him.

    Myra sits typing notes of love
    With romantic pianist’s fingers.
    Dick turns his eyes to the heavens above
    Where Fran’s divine perfume linger.

    Nicky is rolling eyes and tits
    And flaunting her wiggly walk.
    Everybody is thrilled to bits
    By Clive’s suggestive talk.

    Sex suppressed will go berserk,
    But it keeps us all alive.
    It’s a wonderful change from wives and work
    And it ends at half past five.

    Given current pieties about sexual interaction at work, it would have helped if Hannah had supplied us with the date of the poem’s composition, but all we can learn from the acknowledgments section is that permission for its reprinting was given by Margo Ewart. If Hannah had wanted to present the raunchiest collection possible she probably should have included Gavin Ewart’s “Phallus in Wonderland”, which is hardly ever reprinted.

    Sex is as difficult and various as convers­ation; it is to be found on every page of a novel by Jane Austen. It drives every poem that was ever written, whether it makes reference to incidences of sexual congress or not. It is not surprising that when Hannah began to look for the poetry of sex she lost her way, for she was afloat on a vast sea of human endeavour with no guide. An historic overview might have given her something to hang on to, but the attempt to organise such lawless material was always bound to fail. Sex knows no bounds and respects no boundaries. It was folly to think of clapping it up in a single book.

    Germaine Greer’s most recent book is White Beech: the Rainforest Years (Bloomsbury, £25)


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    Surely, a farting competition didn't take place right outside the PM's house?

    Guarding the gatesof Downing Street is so dull that the armed cops are forced to play silly games to break the boredom. This is why a female member of the No 10 staff, strolling nearby, heard three officers indulging in what I’m assured sounded like a farting competition. Either that, or baked beans should be scrapped from the canteen menu. Andrew Mitchell could have saved himself a lot of trouble if he’d offered to break wind when asked to move to the right with his bicycle.

    Tongues were bittenwhen Cherie Blair announced she has a Chinese sister-in-law. Thoughts turned instantly to the former Mrs Rupert Murdoch, Wendi Deng, a great admirer of Cherie’s hubby and mother of one of Mr Blair’s godchildren. At the Chinese for Labour bash, Cherie was in fact referring to Katy Tse, the Hong Konger wife of Tony’s brother, Bill. You’ve got to admire Cherie’s chutzpah. Or lack of self-awareness.

    Jokes about the lovestruckWendi’s mooning (“Oh, sh*t, oh, sh*t. Whatever why I’m so missing Tony … He has such good body and he has really really good legs Butt … And he is slim tall”) are compulsory on the Labour fundraising circuit under the party’s unofficial constitution. The shadow cabinet minister Owen Smith, MCing a London gig for the Cardiff candidates Jo Stevens and Mari Williams, quipped: “There’s been a terrible misunderstanding – Wendi was writing about me, not Tony.” In your dreams, son.

    The banker Kwasi Kwarteng, one of Dave’s brigade of Old Etonians, often goes AWOL when the work and pensions committee grills a Tory minister. The Spelthorne MP dodged Lord Freud after skipping Iain Duncan Smith the previous week. While colleagues interrogated IDS, Kwarteng was spied sipping coffee in Portcullis House a floor below. Dock that MP’s pay for failing to turn up for interviews.

    Work started during the Commons recess to convert the members’ centre in Portcullis into a members’ lounge. The computers and desks are to be replaced by easy chairs and sofas, so that MPs can entertain guests in private instead of sitting at tables in public. Lobbyists should form an orderly queue.

    There’s been griping in the members’ tearoom over a large neon sign advertising opening times and the like. My snout overheard a table of Tory MPs moaning that it “commercialised” the tea-and-crumpets bolt-hole. Isn’t that what right-whingers want to do to public services?

    Flood woes left Ed Miliband out of his depth as water lapped over the top of his wellies and Nigel Farage forced a smile in his waders. The rubber trousers leaked; the Ukip leader was as wet as any mainstream politician.

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

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    No one in their right mind would ever visit a garage for the love of gastronomy, yet everybody who’s passing through seizes the opportunity to put something in their mouth.

    If motorway service centres with their sweaty agglomerations of Burger King, KFC and Costa are the brothels of fast food, then garages are its knocking shops: the places where stressed-out people commit unspeakable and degrading acts with Peperami. No one in their right mind would ever visit a garage for the love of gastronomy, yet everybody who’s passing through seizes the opportunity to put something in their mouth. Why, when the combination of foods that are necessarily high in salt and preservatives with the tension of driving almost always results in flatulence, heartburn, or – a meal deal – both?

    My theory is that garage food feeds that portion of our psyche that, through long association, has begun to mutate into a car’s on-board computer. Every habitual driver knows the strange melding that occurs between them and their wheels: feet rubberise, eyes acquire two semicircles of clarity and girth expands to fit the carriageway available. After hours in this altered state, when the fuel gauge indicates that you’re hungry, you pull on to the forecourt and ram the nozzle in, only to discover that nothing is glugging into your stomach.

    The human-car chimera next enters the kiosk. Once upon a time, this was just that – a small booth in which a man in an oil-stained boiler suit counted out half-crowns while sucking Spangles – but now this has prolapsed into a supermarket-sized zone of commerce, offering everything from foldaway barbecues and lottery tickets to hormone supplements for pre-op transsexuals … and stupid amounts of food.

    There’s a garage at the Woodstock Road roundabout on the outskirts of Oxford where I regularly stop. On heading in to swipe the plastic, I am every time freaked anew by finding myself inside a fully functioning M&S Simply Food outlet, complete with north-Oxford yummy mummies wandering around putting duck à l’orange in their baskets while little Tansy kicks off in her Maclaren buggy. The gathering pace with which supermarkets have gone into coalition with petrol stations suggests that complete mutation is not far off and that soon consumers will fill buckets with a mixture of Strongbow and V-Power unleaded, add Cadbury Mini Eggs and a tube of Zovirax, then knock the whole cocktail back. There’s still a Wild Bean Café tucked into the far corner of this giant garage but once you’ve ploughed your way along furrows full of porcini and cod in miso sauce, will you feel like putting a flaccid, microwaved sausage roll between your lips?

    Yes, of course you will! You’ll also drink the piss-poor crappuccino and buy lots and lots and lots of crisps. After all, there are the kids to consider (even if you’ve never had any or they’re grown-up) and everyone likes different flavours, so you’d better get at least three bags of Walkers and one of those big, white ones of Kettle Chips seasoned with sea salt, because they’re sort of healthy, aren’t they? And they suggest to you – subliminally, at least – that modern Britain is a sophisticated sort of place where, for a modest outlay, you can stab your gums until they bleed with spears of deep-fried potato and at the same time rub salt in those wounds. Oh, and then there are Jelly Babies and Bisodol and two folding chairs for a tenner and a bottle of vintage Taittinger, which you buy simply because it’s so bizarre to see such a thing – and, what with the petrol, the cash register doesn’t stop sticking its paper tongue out at you for quite a long time.

    I was in the local garage at lunchtime today and a man in pale jeans and trainers was holding a “light” chicken teriyaki sandwich and a package of two “individual” Melton Mowbray pork pies while he filled out his form on one of those National Lottery stands that looks like a giant, upended, blue turd. I considered the croissants and pastries that had been “baked in-store throughout the day” and meditated on the “savoury eggs”, neither of which seemed any more appetising than Go-Cat, which was also available in bulk. I’m not trying to pretend I’m some sort of hardened ascetic, I can assure you. I’d have been sucking on that ageing breakfast muffin full of warm bacteria like it was my mammy’s teat if it weren’t for one limiting constraint: I’d walked to the garage, rather than driven there. Try doing this and I guarantee you won’t buy any garage food at all – except for crisps.

    Next week: Will Self’s Psychogeography

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    Unlike Warhol or Lichtenstein – overexposed and often in London – or the more instantly accessible Caulfield or Blake, Hamilton flies slightly under the radar: a hugely influential ideas man but not quite a household name.

    Richard Hamilton
    Tate Modern, London SE1; ICA, London SW1

    In 1957, Richard Hamilton sent a letter to architect friends that inadvertently became a manifesto. “Pop art,” he wrote, “is Popular … Transient … Expendable … Low Cost, Mass Produced, Young … Wicked, Sexy, Gimmicky, Glamorous, Big Business.” The note marked a turning point in his career and, for the art world, prefigured the flood of bright, brash, jokey, plasticky postmodernism that was to dominate for the next 40 years. But as Tate Modern’s new retrospective shows, it is too neat to package up Hamilton as pure pop.

    London has gone Hamilton crazy this month but it doesn’t feel like overkill. Unlike Warhol or Lichtenstein – overexposed and often over here – or the more instantly accessible Caulfield or Blake, Hamilton flies slightly under the radar: a hugely influential ideas man but not quite a household name; a major artist who straddles different genres and schools and has no one signature style, yet who was nevertheless responsible for a handful of joltingly familiar images.

    Coming two and a half years after Hamilton’s death, aged 89 – though planned with his involvement – Tate Modern’s retrospective, as well as the ICA’s reconstruction of some of his 1950s rooms for the Independent Group of artists and the Alan Cristea Gallery’s exhibition of his prints, is a timely canonisation of Hamilton, putting him on the podium with his feted contemporaries in Team Figurative (Bacon, Freud et al).

    The Subject (1990)

    As the Tate’s 17 rooms show, it’s no surprise we don’t see more of Hamilton’s work reproduced on mugs and tea towels, à la Andy or Roy. He was simply too various, spanning surrealism, abstraction, conceptualism, installation and political satire. Much of his work, while wryly satirical of modern media, is still a celebration of shiny design and commodities, of Chrysler and the space race, Braun and brawn.

    The Tate exhibition opens with a re-creation of Hamilton’s 1951 ICA show “Growth and Form”, which he put on after he’d left the Slade. This is the 1950s of the Festival of Britain, in which aeroplanes intersect with biological shapes, sea creatures, eggs and bones. It’s a cross between a biology lab and Ernest Race’s sitting room.

    It is with the reconstruction of Fun House, originally shown as part of the Whitechapel Gallery’s 1956 show “This Is Tomorrow”, that Hamilton explodes into pop. Now a clichéd time capsule of the rock’n’roll era (the installation incorporates film, music, distorted architecture, op art and imagery of B-movie robots and Hollywood pin-ups), at the time this was wholly fresh and subversive – a send-up of Americana, as well as a celebration of new youth culture.

    Elsewhere, we see his Towards … paintings (1962), explorations of male beauty, masculinity and sportsmanship in a fast new era, and his two 1964 Interior pictures, which combine blocks of acid colour with Eames furniture and a cut-out film still of the actress Patricia Knight. One has the assassination of JFK playing on a TV in the background – the atmosphere is jokey but tinged with Hitchcockian claustrophobia.

    Interior II (1964)

    Two much later room sets, Treatment Room (1983) and Lobby (1985), revisit such stifling interiors: the former a DHSS waiting room-meets-doctor’s surgery, with a muted Maggie on a TV monitor ticking off an NHS patient for ever; the second a disorienting green-carpeted hotel with mirrored columns, white stairs and a painting of the same scene beyond, showing how fine the line is between postcard idealism and nightmare.

    Also from 1964 is Portrait of Hugh Gaitskell as a Famous Monster of Filmland, a reaction to the Labour leader’s refusal to support nuclear disarmament. Here, his face is a bloated, monstrous mask, with a definite touch of Francis Bacon in the paint palette.

    Later rooms show Hamilton at his most playful. One is dominated by his series of works celebrating the design of Dieter Rams for Braun. For Hamilton, the German industrial designer was the Jonathan Ive of his day. Hamilton puts his own name on a shiny toaster, also writing a tongue-in-cheek paean to toast; it’s more absurdist than a satire on advertising. The Critic Laughs (1968) elicited the appropriate reaction from this critic, though I’m always easily tickled by an electric toothbrush oscillating a set of dentures.

    Portrait of Hugh Gaitskell as a Famous Monster of Filmland (1964)

    By the 1970s Hamilton had moved on to wonderful piss-takes of Andrex adverts, with their euphemistically floral imagery and soft-focus sylvan maidens. In the bloom-laden Flower-Piece series (1973), Hamilton swaps the pastel loo rolls for turds.

    Hamilton kept working until his death, when he was reworking some of his earlier interiors-centred pieces. In the interim, much of his work was more political, some of it more successful than others. A few of his 1990s and 2000s paintings seem lefty-art-by-numbers, pieces such as Maps of Palestine (2009) or Shock and Awe (2010) – with Tony Blair as a cowboy – lacking the wit or innovation of his earlier work.

    A slightly earlier triptych (1982-93), depicting the Irish Troubles, is much more successful: the three paintings, of Bobby Sands, an Orange marcher and a British squaddie, powerfully combine Hamilton’s pop sensibility with stark news footage and innovative technique. It’s pop art grown up and punched in the guts by reality.

    The exhibitions run at Tate Modern until 26 May and the ICA until 6 April

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    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. 

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    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

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    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
    Derek Jarman
    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.

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    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

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    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.

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    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.

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    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?

    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.

     Photo: Camera Press

    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)

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    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.

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    Emoticons are a new and evolving form of language, and they are producing new patterns of brain activity.

    This article first appeared on

    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

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    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.

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    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.


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    The long-delayed government-commissioned report slipped out today contradicts claims by ministers that food bank usage is driven by supply.

    People, it turns out, are going to food banks because they’re hungry and in need. This finding, which chimes with the experiences of those of us with on-the-ground experience (including prominent members of the Catholic Church), emerges from a long-delayed report commissioned by ministers at Defra, and quietly slipped out today. It contradicts welfare reform minister Lord Freud’s assertion that food bank usage is driven by supply (if you build food banks, people will come for the free food).
    In fact, as well as finding "no systematic evidence on the impact of increased supply" and that "hypotheses of its potential effects are not based on robust evidence", the report found that food bank use is "a strategy of last resort". People are proud, the evidence shows, and will tend to use them only once they’ve cut back on everything they can, and exhausted all other possible avenues of support. Indeed, food bank use is probably the tip of the iceberg: the report finds that, internationally, only one in five of those who are food insecure will tend to use emergency food support. Unfortunately, we don’t measure food insecurity in this country, but with food banks springing up across the country, from those linked to big national networks to small independent operations, perhaps we should.
    The research looked at various sources as to why people are seeking food aid. In order of ranking, they found that reasons included: "loss of, reductions in or problems associated with, social security payments; low income; indebtedness; homelessness". A study the report cites from Citizens Advice found that the two main reasons for referrals for a food parcel were benefit delays and benefit sanctions. With sanctions at an all-time high, and the government proposing to make people wait for seven days to claim JSA after losing their jobs, these issues are only going to get worse.
    The Defra pocket book (2012) highlights the compounded effects of falling income and rising food prices over recent years, which had "produced a double effect of reducing food affordability by over 20 per cent for households in the lowest income decile". Overall, the report makes clear that people go to food banks for both reasons of short-term crisis – job loss or problems with the social security system – and of long-term poverty – low income or indebtedness. 
    The report also bemoans the lack of systematic UK evidence of why people go to food banks. We, like many others, are seeing the urgency of the issue daily in our work, and policy makers need to gain far greater understanding of the growing food poverty crisis. The explosion in food bank use is a national emergency, and it is imperative that we understand its causes so that we can eliminate hunger from British children’s lives.
    In the meantime, there is a lot that can be done to tackle the issues we already know about. Jobcentre Plus advisers need to start making much better use of short-term benefit advances. To tackle the longer-term causes of food poverty, we need more action on the inadequacy of incomes, on supporting people into work that pays enough to live on, backed up by high-quality, affordable childcare, and on the structural problems in the social security system that are edging many towards destitution. 
    Ultimately, food banks are a symptom of deeper problems. No child should be going hungry, and no child should be living in poverty. As part of its legal obligation to end child poverty by 2020, the government must publish its new Child Poverty Strategy by early April, and will be consulting on it shortly. It is a great opportunity for them to set out their roadmap to giving every child the nourishment they need, and the start in life they deserve. 
    Moussa Haddad is senior policy officer at the Child Poverty Action Group 

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    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.

    4. How much is it costing to scare British taxpayers into paying for HS2? (Guardian)

    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.

    8. Banks head for the low road amid growing fears of an independent Scotland (Daily Mail)

    Both Lloyds and almost certainly RBS are working on contingencies for a Yes vote, writes Alex Brummer.

    9. No government can serve its citizens properly while outsourcing on the scale that this one does (Independent)

    For too long, the political parties have believed that public service is bad and private sector is good, writes Andreas Whittam Smith.

    10. Downton Abbey and House of Cards: dramas that live in the world of the 1% (Guardian)

    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.

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    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.

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    Tom Humberstone’s weekly observational comic for the NS.

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    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?

    Player agency

    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.

    Think of maze games such asPac-Man(1980), sports games such as Horace Goes Skiing (1982), and tower defence games such as Plants vs Zombies(2013).

    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.

    Narrative evolution

    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.


    Thomas Hawk

    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.

    The Game Changers: The Writer and The Game takes place on Saturday February 22 at Octagon Theatre, University of Western Australia. Perth International Arts Festival runs until March 1.

    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.

    The Conversation

    This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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    "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.

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    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.

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    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

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    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. 

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    The American-made video has been criticised for oversimplifying the crisis in Ukraine - but its message, by an anonymous Ukrainian known only as "Yulia", is impassioned and compelling.

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    Oxford researchers have now found that, last year, 59.1 per cent of working migrants from the two countries were self-employed, which gave them the same access to tax credits and housing benefits as any other self-employed EU migrant in the UK.

    New research reveals most Romanians and Bulgarians working in the UK were unaffected by the “transitional controls” in place until the start of this year.

    According to much of the media, these controls were the only thing holding back floods of migrants. Even now, nearly two months after Romanians and Bulgarians gained full access to the UK’s labour market, the controls are still in the news.

    The Telegraph reports numbers of Romanians and Bulgarians in the UK reached a “record high” last year, even before controls were removed. The Mail meanwhile claims “one in ten new roles” created last year went to migrants from the two countries.

    But what if it turns out most Romanian and Bulgarian migrants were already unaffected by the controls? That is the conclusion of research carried out by the University of Oxford’s Migration Observatory which builds on an article previously published by The Conversation on the existence of benefits tourism.

    When the two nations joined the EU in 2007, richer countries were worried about a possible influx of low skilled migrants. Temporary restrictions – “transitional controls” – were therefore put in place to limit Romanians and Bulgarians' access to certain jobs, primarily those in agriculture and food processing. Access to the benefits system was also limited.

    However, these controls did not apply to self-employed workers. Oxford researchers have now found that, last year, 59.1 per cent of working migrants from the two countries were self-employed. That compares with just 13.9 per cent of UK nationals.

    Self-employed status gave Romanian and Bulgarian migrants the same access to tax credits, housing benefits and so on as any other self-employed EU migrant in the UK, even while the transition controls were still in place. Unlike his or her fellow nationals with a single employer, a self-employed Romanian enjoyed the same status in the UK as a freelance worker from France or Italy.

    But this doesn’t mean things were rosy, or that the “benefit tourism” stories were right all along. In fact, quite the opposite.

    As the Migration Observatory report makes clear, the transition controls meant registration as self-employed was “less of a choice than a necessity” for Romanians and Bulgarians coming to work in the UK. Controls may have been easily evaded, but they seem to have simply pushed migrants into what the Romanian Embassy called last year a “grey area of the labour market”.

    Liliana Harding, a lecturer in economics at the University of East Anglia, describes the creation of “a secondary labour market, where (self-employed) workers are deprived of various social and residence entitlements.” It may have also led to lower wages, as self-employed workers can avoid minimum wage rules.

    This isn’t a great position to be in. “Migrants are easily exploitable”, points out Jon Fox of the University of Bristol, “but they work hard, and they pay in more than they take out.”

    Carlos Vargas Silva, one of the author’s of the Migration Observatory’s analysis recognises public concern over what the end of transitional controls might bring. “But” he says, “these figures show that limits to welfare access included in the transitional controls did not affect the majority of Romanians and Bulgarians working in the UK since 2007.”

    The Conversation

    This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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    A new history of the Lamaze technique is balanced and impressive, but, like almost everything connected to childbirth, it is not entirely neutral or impassive.

    This article first appeared on

    The typical birth narrative that you read online is a tale of harrowing disappointment. The mother had “spent months – if not years – dreaming” about her baby and her pain-medication-free birth. Often, it’s at home, where the mother fantasises that she will be “surrounded by my family, in an environment where I was free to walk around.” Ideally, the mother would even be able to reach down and pull her baby into the world herself. But, by dint of fate and unhappy circumstance, these moms are forced by medical professionals – sometimes even midwives or doulas – to have C-sections or epidurals. They are “treated disrespectfully or without compassion at that most vulnerable time.”

    Read enough of these narratives and you’ll be convinced that the baby-industrial complex is a cold and harsh machine, where epidurals are pushed like marijuana from an aggressive street vendor and individual agency is dismissed.

    But the reality is quite different. A new book, Lamaze: An International History by the historian Paula A Michaels, explains that the vast majority of modern American women are satisfied with their birth experiences. She doesn’t get into specifics on this particular matter, but she notes that according to a 2013 national survey of women’s childbearing experiences, “Mothers generally rated the quality of the United States maternity care system very positively.” 47 per cent said it was good, and 36 per cent said it was excellent.

    Indeed, it’s my experience that even at big, impersonal city hospitals, the language and protocol surrounding maternity care is sensitive and catered to a woman’s desires. I recall the birthing plan that I was encouraged to fill out before I delivered at NYU Hospital. Would I like to move around during labour? Did I want pain medication offered to me immediately, or never? Did I want to delay umbilical cord clamping? (Studies show that this has benefits for the baby.) I remember looking at the crisp white sheet of paper with its cheerful check boxes and being mystified. Before receiving it, my “birth plan” consisted of going into the hospital when I started having contractions and leaving, at some point, with a baby in arms.

    “We invite you to participate in the planning of your birth,” the NYU hospital’s website warmly announces. “We ask you to consider your preferences and beliefs that will make your birth experience meaningful to you and your family.” That’s a long way from the birthing gulag conjured up by disappointed new moms, and it’s a result, in part, of the adoption of Lamaze techniques in the US in the 1970s.

    Michaels’s book offers a fascinating and detailed history of childbirth over the past century-plus and how what we refer to as Lamaze, but what is more technically known as “psychoprophylaxis,” fits into it. Michaels defines psychoprophylaxis as “a way of giving birth that attempts to manage labour pain primarily through psychological conditioning and without reliance on drugs.” The patterned “hee hee hoo hoo” breathing that is a staple of sitcom depictions of a Lamaze birth is intended to relax and distract a woman from the pain signals in her brain.

    Though Lamaze was spread widely in the late ’60s and early ’70s by American feminists who were pushing back against a medical establishment that they saw as paternalistic, its roots go back to the 1930s, when a British physician named Grantly Dick-Read published a book called Natural Childbirth. Dick-Read’s Natural Childbirth was itself a kind of reaction to the established norms for middle- and upper-class birth. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, new state regulations about who could attend a woman during childbirth placed the majority of pregnant women in hospitals when they gave birth. Once birth became a formal, medical process, middle- and upper-middle-class women began asking for pharmacological pain relief. In 1915, Michaels notes, first-wave feminists were not agitating for a return to the home birth; they were arguing for twilight sleep during labour, because they thought it would liberate women from the discomforts of childbirth.

    In Natural Childbirth, however, Dick-Read stated that childbirth is not inherently painful. “Women’s minds, not their bodies, were at the root of pain in childbirth and fear was ‘the greatest evil,’” Michaels writes of Dick-Read’s beliefs. The way to help women get out of their heads was through childbirth-education classes and greater support from husbands. Dick-Read promoted some insanely retrograde ideas – that birth pain is psychological; that women of the upper classes should be the ones having lots of babies – but other parts of his philosophy sound like they could have been cribbed from crunchy mommy blogs. Birth, Dick-Read wrote, is “an ecstasy of accomplishment that only women who have babies naturally [i.e., without anesthesia] appreciate.”

    While Dick-Read’s methods were proliferating in the US and the UK in the ’40s and ’50s (though they never defined the dominant approach), a similar technique was devised in the Soviet Union. But there the impetus was different: a shortage of pain meds and a concomitant, statewide push for fecundity in devastated post-war Russia. There, psychoprophylaxis was developed and encouraged to improve the experience of the working classes. Like Dick-Read’s methods, psychoprophylaxis also relied on education for expectant mothers as a way to cut down on pain, which was, of course, all in their heads.

    A French obstetrician named Ferdinand Lamaze picked up psychoprophylaxis when it was presented by Russian doctors at the 1951 International Congress of Obstetrics and Gynecology. Lamaze promoted, on an international scale, the trained muscular relaxation and patterned breathing he learned from observing women giving birth in Russia.

    When Lamaze was first imported to the US, it wasn’t synonymous with zero medication. In the mid-’60s, “a little Demerol or morphine to take the edge off pain and tension did not stand in the way of claiming success in achieving a ‘natural’ birth,” Michaels writes. It was only when countercultural ’60s values, which prized authentic experience above all else, took over Lamaze methods that pain medication was eschewed completely.

    Also gone was the notion that childbirth pain was all in a woman’s head. Pharmacology-free childbirth was framed as empowering because the male medical establishment pushed drugs, and those drugs “desensitised women’s bodies and clouded their minds” during an experience that should be wholly natural. Despite the shift in framing, the language of Lamaze moms in the early ’70s was curiously similar to the language of Dick-Read. They wanted an experience that was “near ecstasy”.

    Exclusive use of Lamaze without pharmacological pain relief fell out of fashion in the early ’80s as epidural anesthesia became widely available, and as scientific literature began showing that those complex breathing patterns didn’t really help mitigate pain. But Lamaze helped usher in a lot of birth practices that we now think of as commonplace, including childbirth-preparation classes, allowing the birthing mother to have a supportive partner of her choosing in the room with her, and the rise of hospital birthing centers, which provide things like hydrotherapy tubs and homey furnishings along with access to the regular maternity ward should anything go wrong.

    Michaels's book is balanced and impressive, but, like almost everything connected to childbirth, it is not entirely neutral or impassive. Even as she admits that most women are happy with their childbirth experiences, she still pushes for systemic change in her conclusion. She believes that maternity coverage should be ordered by the “logic of care” instead of the “logic of choice”. Care is an open-ended process without boundaries, Michaels says, while choice is a matter of assessing the limited products on offer. The latter, she argues, gives women a false sense of empowerment. According to a “logic of care,” women would be able to have a doctor or midwife with whom they’d developed a rapport deliver their baby, instead of whoever is on call; doulas, a kind of birthing assistant, would also be available to whoever wanted them, instead of just to women wealthy enough to afford them. Doula rates vary depending on geographic location and level of experience, but range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars.

    I don’t know that those measures are practical, or that they would even prevent the blogosphere from being “perennially abuzz with chatter of disappointing childbirth experiences,” as Michaels puts it. How do you guarantee that a certain obstetrician is available for every woman in labour? What if two women covered by the same doctor go into labour simultaneously at different hospitals? Isn’t a midwife allowed to have her own family emergencies that might supersede her job? What if your doula disagrees with your choices? Or the doula fights with the midwife? Will you still feel cared for and empowered?

    I don’t mean to discount the bad experiences that women have during childbirth – those experiences are real and painful. But perhaps those are individual issues, rather than national ones, stemming, in part, from the unreasonably high expectations that we’ve put on the birth process. Our expectations are high because we choose to have children, and we have fewer of them. Before the pill and the sexual revolution, having children was socially expected and more difficult to prevent. As Jennifer Senior says in her new book, All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, “Adults often view children as one of life's crowning achievements, and they approach child-rearing with the same bold sense of independence and individuality that they would any other life project.”

    But the other part of our high expectations may have to do with all of the new information we have about pregnancy and how our actions and environment could influence our fetuses. In her wonderful book, Origins, Annie Murphy Paul discusses the burgeoning scientific field of “fetal origins”. Paul writes that the discoveries of these researchers “have been cast as one long ringing alarm bell, one long line of doctors in white lab coats, shaking their fingers at pregnant women: No, Don't, Stop!” Your diet, your stress level, the air you breathe, and yes, how you give birth, can all affect your child. No wonder we are so concerned with how our children come into the world; we're told we could be screwing it all up just as they take their first breath.

    As a result, we now emphasise our preparation in the run-up to the birth – all those birth classes to take and cord-clamping decisions to make – and yet, we leave the hospital almost entirely clueless about the mewling, fragile little bundles we’re spiriting home. Just like parenthood itself, birth is not always going to be something “ecstatic” or something that you can control, no matter how many boxes you’re allowed to check on your birth plan.

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    The introduction of "safe-standing" at Premiership football grounds would allow clubs to reduce ticket prices and prove that clubs are prepared to listen to their fans.

    The Fullwell End at Roker Park was where I first learned to love football. The football wasn’t great – despite glimmers of brilliance from the likes of Marco Gabbiadini, Sunderland spent most of their time before they left for the Stadium of Light in 1997 battling for survival in one division or another. I started watching Sunderland in our first, and thankfully only, season in the old third division and on the last game at Roker Park they were relegated from the Premiership. The bitter wind blowing in from the seafront made Roker Park one of the coldest sporting arenas of them all.

    But the Fullwell End and Roker Park had an atmosphere all of its own. Sunderland players and fans spoke with pride and opposing fans spoke with trepidation about the famous "Roker Roar". When Sunderland moved on from Roker Park with a 3-0 win over Everton, I saw tears in the eyes of very tough men. There are no terraces at the Stadium of Light, nor are there terraces at any other Premier League ground. The reaction to Lord Justice Taylor’s report following the Hillsborough disaster signalled the end of standing in Premiership footballing grounds, with the famous old terraces being replaced by all-seater stadia.

    Something was lost when we left Roker Park, with its history going back to 1897. And something was lost when football turned its back on the terraces. The atmosphere at some Premiership grounds borders on the sterile (obviously not when Sunderland are playing), with the shift away from any standing areas being a big cause in the changing atmosphere at football matches. All seater grounds are more expensive – as Crystal Palace fans pointed out recently, the cost of a ticket for away fans at Chelsea represents nine hours work for somebody paid the minimum wage. Since standing areas can accommodate a higher density of supporters, clubs will also be able to decrease ticket prices for hard-pressed fans.

    As football has become increasingly corporatised and distant from its working class roots, fans have been left feeling disengaged from their clubs and their sport, with attendances falling in recent years. The issue of standing at football grounds is an area in which fans have expressed their views overwhelmingly and the clubs should show that they’re prepared to listen. Polls have shown that up to 90 per cent of football supporters support a return to standing at football grounds. It’s fans who turn up in the rain, wind and snow to make football the force it is today and the fans’ voice on this (and on many other issues) should be listened to. Football is a social game that is deeply rooted in communities and standing allows families and groups of friends to enjoy matches together without advance planning or dealing with seating charts.

    The argument for allowing so-called "safe-standing" at Premiership football grounds is overwhelming. Safe-standing isn’t the same as old style terraces, but allows stands to be easily converted from seating to standing areas and back again at little cost. German grounds have safe-standing areas and we should be learning from their example. We were told that a move to all-seater stadia would help us win the bid to host the World Cup, only for Germany, with its standing areas to trump our bid and win the right to host the 2006 tournament.

    Safe-standing is one example where German clubs are much more in touch with their fans than English clubs. A standing season ticket at Bayern Munich, the best team in Europe, cost £104. An Arsenal season ticket costs around ten times that. Bayern’s President, Uli Hoeness, said, "we do not think the fans are like cows, who you milk. Football has got to be for everybody."

    Opponents of safe-standing often point towards the example of Hillsborough to argue that there should be no return to standing. And they’re right that we should do all that we can to make sure that there is never any repeat of that darkest day for British football. But even the Taylor Report suggested that Hillsborough was caused by poor policing, overcrowding and the disgraceful fences that were used to keep fans virtually caged. There’s no evidence that safe-standing is anything other than entirely safe.

    It’s now 20 years since football grounds in the top division had to become all-seater. And, contrary to the predictions of football club chairmen and politicians at the time, many fans haven’t grown to love not standing at matches. Fans want to see a return to standing at football grounds and it’s clear that a return to standing wouldn’t pose any safety risks. Reintroducing standing areas would show that football clubs actually care about what fans think and there’s no reason for government to stand in the way of Premiership clubs who want to listen to their fans.

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    Families have been hit by a triple whammy in childcare: rising childcare costs, falling early years places and cuts to financial support.

    Today's important report from the IPPR lays bare the difficulties David Cameron's childcare crunch is causing for parents and for our economy. The report shows that maternal employment rates in the UK are lower than the OECD average. It finds that if we had a childcare system that worked for working mothers, we'd be able to help an extra 150,000 women into work, benefiting the public finances by up to £1.5bn a year.

    Yet families have been hit by a triple whammy in childcare under this government: rising childcare costs, up 30% since 2010, falling early years places and cuts to financial support. David Cameron's cost-of-living crisis has meant parents are struggling to make ends meet and it is even more difficult for work to pay. A recent survey for Mumsnet and Resolution Foundation recently found that a third of stay-at-home mums would like to work and a fifth of those in work wanted to work more hours but couldn't because of the soaring cost of childcare. Mothers working part-time earn about 22 per cent less per hour than women working full-time, with women reporting problems accessing before and after school care. The biggest employment gap is for mothers of three and four year olds.

    Flexible and affordable high quality childcare can boost the economy and make a difference for mums and dads, helping them make choices about going back to work and to work the hours they choose. This not only helps grow the economy, but it helps tackle the unfair motherhood pay penalty women face when they return to work after having children. Labour is investing in childcare to grow our economy, help make work pay and give children the best start in life. Our plans to increase free childcare provision from 15 to 25 hours for three-and-four-year-olds with parents in work will make a real difference to families struggling under this government. It will give parents choice about increasing their hours or returning to work after caring for young children. Worth £1,500, parents will be able to work part-time without having to worry about childcare costs. Guaranteeing before and after school care in a local school will help parents with the logistical nightmare of before and after school care. This primary childcare guarantee will support parents balancing work and family life.

    We know women who take career breaks face a pay and status penalty for the rest of their lives. Affordable, flexible high-quality childcare is part of the answer to ensuring that parents have choices to meet their aspirations for their families. There is a gap in support at the critical 0-2 years period and I'll continue to champion support for families at this crucial time when parents make choices about returning to work.

    Labour understands this dilemma and is working to alleviate the childcare crunch families' face. As we move towards the election , childcare will be centre stage and this IPPR report shows just how high the stakes are for families and the economy if the government continues to get it wrong.

    Lucy Powell MP is the shadow minister for childcare and children