10 October 2015

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Cover 10 October 2015 AU


10 October 2015

Books feature

A crushing case for brutalism — with the people left out

Elain Harwood’s flawed but impressive study of modernist architecture manages perfectly to reflect its subject, says David Kynaston

1972: Park Hill Estate, Sheffield. Photo: Fox Photos/Getty Images

10 October 2015

First things first: this is one of the heaviest books I have ever read. Eventually I finished with it resting uncomfortably on my knees, as I perched on the edge of my bed. It reminded me of when I met Jennifer Worth (of Call the Midwife fame) and she showed me her hardback copy of my own substantial tome Austerity Britain — neatly spliced in half to make two separate manageable entities. Reluctantly I can now see her point; but in the case of Elain Harwood’s Space, Hope and Brutalism, the doorstopper’s doorstopper, I doubt if I would have the strength to do the same.

The physical inconvenience of Harwood’s book is doubly unfortunate because there is some evidence that Britain’s often reviled modernist architecture of the quarter-century or so after the war is having a moment, to judge by two straws in the wind this autumn. London’s annual Open House weekend included booking-only tours of Ernö Goldfinger’s increasingly iconic Trellick Tower (on the right soon after leaving Paddington station), all tickets for which were snapped up within minutes; and much the same happened with the National Trust’s Brutal Utopias season, featuring tours of the Southbank Centre, Denys Lasdun’s University of East Anglia (students living in ‘ziggurats’) and the streets-in-the-sky of Sheffield’s Park Hill estate. According to the trust, it is the young, not ageing nostalgics, who go on these tours — another sign, like Labour’s new leader, of the appeal to that generation of the authentically honest and unvarnished.

Certainly it is the young who mainly occupy the pages of a complementary new book, Stefi Orazi’s unashamedly celebratory Modernist Estates: The buildings and the people who live in them today (Frances Lincoln, £25). ‘I’ve always wanted to live high up, and I am a fan of Brutalism and the generosity and intelligence of residential layouts designed at the time,’ declares Maria Lisogorskaya, living on the 24th floor of Goldfinger’s Balfron Tower, east London’s sister to Trellick. ‘Concrete!’ replies Katy Carroll when asked to name the best things about living in Park Hill. ‘The interior/exterior space, the views afforded by the wall of floor-to-ceiling windows, and the light they bring right into our living space.’

Irrespective of likes and dislikes, what happened to Britain’s postwar built environment, especially between the late 1950s and early 1970s, is undeniably a resonant subject, one that has directly affected the daily lives of almost everyone ever since. The underlying driving forces of that profound physical transformation included the well-meaning, top-down values and assumptions of the newly created welfare state, a belief in the superior virtues of planning and communal living, the bewitching sway of Le Corbusier on cohorts of architectural students, an abhorrence of Victorianism (associated with plutocracy, urban squalor and ill-disciplined visual profusion), an accompanying year-zero faith in progress and modernity, and an eye for the main chance on the part of aesthetically insensate property developers. By the late 1960s, especially following the Ronan Point high-rise disaster of 1968, a reaction was palpably setting in; by the mid-1970s, amid economic crisis, an era was over.

At the core of Harwood’s treatment are a dozen lengthy thematic chapters. The staples are there, of course — town centres, new towns, housing, schools, universities, commercial buildings, public buildings; but her detailed, near-comprehensive survey also takes in hospitals, transport, agriculture, religion, leisure and much else. Her technical expertise is formidable, the research is thorough, and she mostly avoids jargon. Altogether it is an astonishing achievement, matched only (in terms of the architectural history of postwar Britain) by Miles Glendinning and Stefan Muthesius in their 1994 study of high-rise public housing, Tower Block. Like them, Harwood is a committed modernist, wholly buying into the seductive fallacy that form must follow function; but she is seldom overtly didactic, and in a micro sense anyway her approach is essentially dispassionate.

Take, almost at random, the chapter on transport. Stockwell Bus Garage, Preston Bus Station, railway stations at Manchester (Oxford Road), Coventry and Birmingham (the now revamped New Street), Paddington Maintenance Depot, the City of London’s ‘Zidpark’, the first generation of motorways and their service areas (the M1’s Newport Pagnell the pioneer, still a time warp in 2015), the Severn Bridge, the Blackwall Tunnel, the Hammersmith Flyover, the Elephant and Castle subway-infested gyratory, the all-devouring Birmingham Inner Ring Road, the Scandinavian-style Gatwick Airport (on the late-1950s cusp of ‘soft’ modernism giving way to the brutalism of ‘hard’ modernism) — they are all here, invariably with illuminating information, and virtually the only omission I noticed was Reading Car Park, to which the Financial Times in 1968 devoted an entire survey.

And yet, and yet… Ultimately there is something sterile about this book, epitomised by the many illustrations, the great majority of which are recently taken photographs of surviving exteriors and interiors — handsomely reproduced, but with barely a person in sight. Indeed, it is the lack of people, in any interesting, flesh-and-blood sense, which is the biggest problem. Despite having assiduously interviewed many of the modernist architects, Harwood seldom if at all evokes them as individuals, with their often idealistic passions and arrogant mind-frames; while as for the people who actually lived in and used the buildings, they barely manage a walk-on part. Almost the only exception comes at the end of the chapter on hospitals, with one early patient at Northwick Park telling the Wembley News in 1970 that the curtains in the window made it ‘homely’ (that unfavourite modernist word), another that it was ‘just like staying at the Hilton’. Admittedly the whole question of contemporary reactions is an intensely complicated one (more so than either modernists or anti-modernists usually admit); but Harwood should have had a stab.

Other criticisms also go beyond a mildly regretful tut-tut. In reality, the intellectual and aesthetic traffic during those years was far from exclusively in one direction, and it is a pity that Harwood neither draws out the debates nor explores the tortured souls of knowledgeable and perceptive witnesses like Lionel Brett (later Viscount Esher) or the great Ian Nairn, who desperately wanted the modernity project to succeed but became increasingly depressed by its flaws. The other key omission (which I find difficult to forgive) is any real consideration of all the destruction involved — destruction that often went beyond the physical (Euston Arch, Coal Exchange, etc) and involved the wanton scattering to the four winds of communities that could never be reassembled. In this vast book, almost unbelievably, we hear barely a heartfelt whisper from John Betjeman.

Why, beyond Ronan Point and fiscal pressures, did the reaction against modernism eventually arrive? Harwood rightly points to the breakdown of the postwar centre-ground political consensus, but there was much else that played its part in the changing zeitgeist. Take the Beatles: the acme of modernity back in 1962, just five years later they were celebrating in ‘Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite!’ the pre-modern. Moreover, a few years further on, by the early 1970s, something potentially major was afoot: localism (go to any big-city local studies library and see the rash of community newspapers from that time), small is beautiful, feminism (the politics of the domestic), the real ale movement. With more imaginative leadership on Labour’s part — less male, fewer union barons, fewer smoke-filled rooms — the 1970s might have played out very differently. After all, most people most of the time want a better yesterday; the shame about modernism, long before the advent of Margaret Thatcher, was that that comforting possibility was debarred from the table.

In the end, inevitably, there is always a subjective quality about architecture. Speaking personally, if given the unattractive choice between old-school brutalism and new-school infantilism (the Cheese-grater, the Walkie-Talkie, et al), I know which, despite everything, I would tend to prefer. Indeed, near Junction 12 of the M25 one passes under a strikingly brutalist bridge — defiantly there, take it or leave it — of which I have grown curiously fond. Even so, there are limits; and as with Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush album, where one ‘Southern Man’ is quite enough, a preference for the intimate and the mellifluous is only human.


The many lives of John Buchan

Ursula Buchan casts further light on her grandfather’s famous novel

John Buchan, 1935 (Photo: Getty)

10 October 2015

Up the stairs with flying feet,
You would burst upon us, cheering
Wellington’s funereal street.
Fresh as paint, though you’d been ’railing
Up from Scotland all the night,
Or had just returned from scaling
Some appalling Dolomite…
Pundit, publicist and jurist:
Statistician and divine;
Mystic, mountaineer and purist
In the high financial line;
Prince of journalistic sprinters —
Swiftest that I ever knew —
Never did you keep the printers
Longer than an hour or two…
Still I hope with kindly feeling
You recall the days of yore,
When I watched you gaily reeling
Off your folios by the score;
Self-effacing, self-suppressing
When your elder took the reins,
Though at half his age possessing
Twice and more than twice his brains.


In 1907, Charles Graves, who worked for The Spectator, wrote the above valedictory poem to mark the departure of his part-time colleague, John Buchan. This piece of high-class doggerel hits a number of nails firmly on the head: in particular Buchan’s modesty, fizzing vitality and remarkable intellect, as well as the speed at which he worked and the variety of his occupations and preoccupations.

He had first written for The Spectator (owned and edited by St Loe Strachey and based then in Wellington Street) in 1900, and worked for Strachey, off and on, between 1901 and 1907, becoming assistant editor in 1906. In all he wrote 800 articles, mostly anonymously, so that the full variety of his output has only recently been uncovered. His subjects ranged from foreign policy to Bergson’s philosophy to the glamour of mountaineering to new poetry.

Graves’s valediction was prompted by Buchan’s decision to leave The Spectator, as well as the Bar, in order to work for Thomas Nelson and Son, an Edinburgh publishing company with a London office. He was engaged to marry Susan Grosvenor who, though very sweet and intelligent, had no money of her own, yet by reason of her privileged upbringing was quite unable to boil an egg or sew on a button. He needed a larger and surer income to afford a London establishment big enough to accommodate servants. Despite his change of career, he continued to write for The Spectator from time to time until the early 1930s.

As well as journalist and barrister, he was at various times colonial administrator, head of wartime propaganda, member of Parliament, novelist, poet, historian, public thinker and viceroy. But his name has been made, seemingly for all eternity, by a short spy thriller which he wrote in a few weeks for his own amusement.

In August 1914 Buchan took a family holiday in Broadstairs, Kent; a duo-denal ulcer was playing up badly and his doctor recommended rest. There he began his second ‘shocker’ (the first was The Power House), finishing it when ordered to bed again in December. The book’s dedication, to his friend and business partner, Tommy Nelson, defines the ‘shocker’ as a ‘romance where the incidents defy the probabilities, and march just inside the borders of the possible’, which, taking in all the coincidences as well as the explosive incident with the lentonite, seems about right. The novel was serialised in Blackwood’s Magazine between July and September 1915, and appeared in book form in October, when it was an immediate critical and commercial success, selling 25,000 copies in the first six weeks.

The plot was, of course, informed by the febrile international situation in the summer of 1914; the title came from the number of wooden steps that led down to a Broadstairs beach, counted for Buchan by his six-year-old daughter, Alice.

The tense, fast-moving, first-person narrative contains surprisingly interesting characterisations for an adventure story, not to mention deft and vivid descriptions of landscape and weather, for which Buchan was to become renowned. It has all his hallmarks of brevity, clarity, keen observation and wry humour. The South African Hannay irritates some readers by his heartiness, robust colonial utterances and emphasis on getting a job done, but we shouldn’t forget he was conceived in wartime. I like his resourcefulness, sensitivity to atmosphere and cheerful courage. Although at least partly modelled on General Sir Edmund Ironside, Hannay is, in many ways, the average man who knows his limitations, and is thus someone with whom readers can readily identify. The book was very popular with soldiers in the trenches.

In 1934, Alfred Hitchcock bought the option to film the book from Buchan, by now a very well-known writer and politician. The 39 Steps, possibly the first ‘man-on-the-run’ thriller ever filmed, made Hitchcock famous in America for the first time when it came out in 1935. Much of the plot was changed to accommodate a love interest and to reflect the different international situation, 20 years on from 1915. Hannay, played by Robert Donat, acquires a beautiful but reluctant companion, Pamela (Madeleine Carroll). The scene where they have to share a room in a Scottish inn and she removes her stocking, while handcuffed to him, gives off an erotic spark even now. An amused Buchan told Hitchcock at the premiere that the film was a great improvement on the book; only my loyal granny could never be reconciled to Hitchcock changing the story.

The novel inspired two later films and a television adaptation, but it’s the Hitchcock film that has become an international cultural icon; so much so that a jolly, send-up stage version of it has played to audiences all over the world for the past ten years. We shall never know whether the book would have remained in print continuously for a century without the film industry promoting it so assiduously. What is plain is that its prominence has succeeded in obscuring many of the other things for which John Buchan deserves to be remembered.


The man who knows all the Hermitage's secrets - and he's keeping them

The Winter Palace, St Petersburg, 1840, by Ferdinand Victor Perrot (Pushkin Museum)

10 October 2015

The front cover of this book describes the Hermitage as ‘the Greatest Museum in the World’. That sobriquet must go to the Louvre. The Hermitage is perhaps the second greatest, one which its current director Mikhail Piotrovsky calls an ‘encyclopaedic’ museum, housing ‘the culture of humanity, which is represented in all its variety…’ Not quite. Like the Louvre or the other encyclopaedic museums, the Met in New York say, or the Kunsthistorisches in Vienna, it does not incorporate primitive or folk art. London doesn’t have anything directly comparable: it would be as though the British Museum, the National Gallery, the Victoria and Albert, the Royal Collections and a bit of Tate Modern were all rolled into one.

We learn that it currently attracts three million visitors a year, whereas in the late Soviet era it was four million. Immediately after the collapse of communism it went down to one million, and this was the period when I lived a few doors away from it on Ulitsa Khalturina and came to know the Hermitage well. It was so quiet, especially in winter: the best time to visit. You could wander in and out for a very modest fee. A friend of mine worked there, but there was no work for him to do, so he was always on holiday and would take me behind the scenes. The restoration department seemed to have come from the late Renaissance. Among the staff, you saw something you don’t always see in Russia, happy people with bright eyes, smiling and making jokes (well, they do work in the most delicious place in town). Football was played in its inner courtyards. There were dancing bears by the south portico, and gypsies covered in soot rushed at you in Palace Square. One day I saw boys staving in the basement windows of the General Staff building with the front wheels of their bicycles — something had to change, and it did.

What also astounded me were the floors. St Petersburg has the most beautiful wooden floors in the world, many of them in the Hermitage. I wonder why Piotrovsky doesn’t mention them. How I felt for those floors, trodden on by hordes down the centuries — and with no overshoes! But however many times I visited the place, I never mastered it. I nearly always got lost; artefacts or rooms I wanted to revisit but could never find again. Quite right too. A great museum has to be a labyrinth in which you become lost; it’s part of the magic.

With the Hermitage this is exacerbated by its lack of internal cohesion. The museum comprises the Winter Palace and sundry annexes, both historical and recent. What is striking about the Winter Palace is that behind its ethereal eau de Nil façade no room relates stylistically to any other; and the same goes for the various Hermitage extensions. Here a copy of the Raphael Loggia, there a version of English Palladianism, beyond them a hall in Russian neo-classicism, now the weird Malachite Room or a quasi-Greek temple, or rococo boudoir or forest of golden columns, or vault of an unidentifiable kind — Gothic, Byzantine, Saracenic? It evokes the sense of a remote despotism playing cultural catch-up, wanting things of every possible sort, with no overall pattern. And like the Louvre’s, its content has been further engorged by revolution and mass confiscations. Sokurov’s film Russian Ark tried to impose a pattern by taking you through the Hermitage in one shot. It didn’t work. The film is somehow fogeyish, failing to capture the museum’s crazy splendour.

Piotrovsky’s book reflects this incoherence. For a start it is not remotely the book I thought it was going to be. Piotrovsky’s father was also a director of the Hermitage, and Mikhail is sitting on an Everest of personal anecdote and insider knowledge. Very little of that makes it into these pages. Actually it’s a dossier: of nearly 400, fewer than 70 full pages are written by Piotrovsky. The rest are illustrations with extended captions supplied by others. But even Piotrovsky’s contribution seems to have been put together by a number of committees: it is awash with non sequiturs, unexplained references, repetitions, special pleading disguised as assertion, and manipulative phraseology (‘democratic aristocratism’ is worthy of Dean Swift). There are some weird errors (Piotrovsky doesn’t know that ‘dialogue’ was invented by the Ancient Greeks). And the translation can only have made it worse: murky, poorly punctuated. Just to ensure you remain pretty clueless, annotated floor-plans are omitted. The illustrations, however, are fabulous.

No major issues are entirely avoided. The sales from the Hermitage by the communists are mentioned in several places, though not itemised (the best went to Andrew Mellon via whom in due course they formed the core collection of the National Gallery in Washington). The Hermitage works claimed by Germany are dealt with in a special insert which appears not to have been written by Piotrovsky at all. Entitled ‘Displacing Displaced Objects’ it is in a different typeface and on different coloured paper from the Piotrovsky pages. It is more or less incomprehensible and in places petulant — the Russian case, which I hope is a reasonable one, is not well served by it.

Not a single Soviet leader ever made an official visit to the Hermitage; and it was thought that after years of oppression, post-Soviet St Petersburg would burst into a great era of creativity. But alas, uptight, puritanical Putinism has turned the city into even more of a cultural backwater than under late communism. So I wonder if Piotrovsky will ever be able to write the book which is really in him. Traditionally Russians have had to go into exile to do such things. I expect they still do.


Alongside Beans

10 October 2015

weeding alongside beans in the same rush as them

6 a.m. scrabbling at the earth

beans synchronised in rows
soft fanatical irresponsible beans
behind my back
breaking out of their mass grave

at first, just a rolled up flag
then a bayonet a pair of gloved hands

then a shocked corpse hurrying up in prayer
and then another

and then (as if a lock had gone and the Spring had broken loose)

a hoverfly

not looking up but lost in pause
landing its full-stop
on a bean leaf

(and what a stomach bursting from its zips
what a nervous readiness attached to its lament and
using the sound as a guard rail over the drop)

and then another

and after a while a flower
turning its head to the side like a bored emperor
and after a while a flower


singing out a faint line of scent
and spinning around the same obsession with its task
and working with the same bewitched slightly off-hand look as the sea

covering first one place
and then another

and after a while another place

and then another

and another

and another


Proof that the British hardly ever had a stiff upper lip

beauty girl cry

10 October 2015

The last time I cried was September 1989. That was my first week at public school.

The reason I cried was that my allocated room-mate, a malevolent pixie named Toby Cox who later became one of my closest friends, had informed me that he ‘knew a lot of people’ at Harrow and he was going to tell them all that I was ‘a total dick’. I bawled. I blubbered, and a cord of saliva swung from my lower lip, as I begged for mercy. He refused. And I haven’t cried since.

Not at the deaths of pets or relatives. Not at the break-ups of relationships. There’s something satisfying, I suppose, in fulfilling so completely a national stereotype. And I feel even more satisfied after reading Thomas Dixon’s excellent history of the British attitude to tears, which suggests that the stiff upper lip has been an even rarer, more fleeting phenomenon than I had imagined.

There’s evidence, going back centuries, of the British as rubicund beef-eaters, suspicious of pretension, prone to violence. But dry-eyed and stoical, not so much. True, Dixon finds a fore-echo in 16th-century Protestant scepticism towards Catholic histrionics. Hence our word ‘maudlin’, an allusion to Mary Magdalene, who misguidedly wept on finding Christ’s tomb empty.

Yet in the 17th century, we see Oliver Cromwell (not usually thought of as a softy) sobbing so prolifically at prayer that his tears trickled out under the closet door. And then, in the second half of the 18th century, came the Age of Sensibility, which found expression in the rise of the novel. As developed by the likes of Samuel Richardson and Fanny Burney, these ‘portable narrative performances’, as Dixon describes them, were, at least in part, devices for making people cry. In those days, it was the height of fashion to burst into tears at just about anything.

According to Dixon’s book — which is so well written, to the point and enlightening that there were times I almost wept — it wasn’t until the British empire reached maturity in the 19th century that we learnt to bite our lower lips to stop them wobbling, while keeping our upper ones as stiff as staple-guns. Awfully important, old chap, not to let the natives see you blub. That word ‘blub’, incidentally, was invented in the 1860s. A decade later, Charles Darwin observed that ‘Englishmen rarely cry’, contrasting this with the lachrymosity of our continental cousins.

Within a century, though, the upper lip began to twitch and quiver. Surveys suggest that by the 1950s we were as prone to sob in the cinema as now: that’s to say, about 40 per cent of men and 80 per cent of women admitted and admit to it. No dry-eyed scholar, the author confesses to being a ‘sucker’ for tear-jerking TV. Perhaps the classic contemporary example of the form is the ITV talent show The X Factor, which introduces contestants with brief biographical videos that are shamelessly designed to snip spinal columns, and reduce us all to carpet-thumping banshees.

And here we come to a theory that Dixon raises but doesn’t sufficiently explore: the idea that tears flow most voluminously at times of what he calls ‘momentous existential transition’. A wedding. A graduation. The funeral of a parent. As well as everything else wept about on these occasions, people weep at what they’re leaving behind, the death of their former selves.

The important thing here is the sense of transition. That’s why The X Factor, in its celebration of sobbing, has prioritised those videos, which emphasise the pain contestants have been through or the drabness of their backgrounds. The point is that to appear on the show and shine could change their lives forever. Yet — and here’s the rub — in order to sing, they have to keep it together.

Which brings us to another of Dixon’s insights, namely that few things are more likely to make us cry than the sight of someone else trying not to. Thus it was that, during an early instalment of this year’s series, after the soundly-built Filipina housewife Neneth Lyons had finished belting out ‘Somewhere’, and her face contorted as, beneath flared nostrils, her smile became wretchedly inverted, I found myself clutching the arms of my revolving chair in my little sitting room, my hair rearing on end, my knuckles milk-white with the effort of retaining self-control.

For this, you see, is the fear that haunts me: that one day I shall just start crying while watching an episode of The X Factor. And then, perhaps, I won’t ever stop.


Allan Massie’s Bordeaux Quartet: truer to Occupied France than any history

German troops marching along the Champs Elysees (Photo: Getty)

10 October 2015

In a recent book review, the historian Norman Stone wrote: ‘Maybe the second world war can now be left to novelists.’ Perhaps he was thinking of Allan Massie’s 1989 masterpiece A Question of Loyalties, an utterly convincing portrayal of a man making all the wrong choices for the noblest reasons in Vichy France. It’s such fertile territory that Massie has returned to it for a quartet of detective novels set in Occupied Bordeaux.

The final part, End Games in Bordeaux, sees Superintendent Lannes suspended at the wishes of his German overlords. He is politically suspect but there isn’t much to do anyway: ‘Nobody’s been murdering anybody, except what they will call war-work,’ one character says. Lannes’s family embodies the conflicts within France. One son, Alain, has fled to London to fight with De Gaulle. The mother’s favourite, Dominique, is in Vichy working to instil patriotic values in deprived children and, most tragically of all, his daughter, Clothilde, has fallen in love with a deluded patriot called Michel who joins the Germans fighting on the Eastern Front. This is vintage Massie — where we would see a fanatical Nazi, Massie gives us an easily led and not terribly bright idealist.

Lannes isn’t any more popular with the Resistance, who appear as little more than gangsters extorting money in return for protection when the war is over. I hope I’m not spoiling things too much to say that the Germans lose. Whereas the earlier novels are languid and claustrophobic, End Games has almost too much action for such a short book. There are moments of breathtaking excitement as Massie cuts between protagonists in Bordeaux, London, Paris and Russia. Lannes, so commanding in the early days of the war, now appears naive. Everyone around him is playing realpolitik whereas he charges around like a knight errant trying to solve crimes, right wrongs and save people he hardly knows. Unable to align with either side, he is suspected by both.

His son Dominique is wiser, making contact with the Resistance even while working for Vichy. The smoothest politician of all is François Mitterrand, who has a cameo role in the series first as a Vichy functionary and then as a leading light in the Resistance. ‘Vichy was necessary. I’ll never deny that — except in public,’ he says at one point. Finishing Massie’s Bordeaux Quartet, it’s hard to imagine how any work of history could give one a better understanding of the complexities of Occupied France.


Sport’s first celebrity: W.G. Grace

W.G. Grace, by W.T. Wilson, 1887: Grace is beginning to show signs of the gluttony that marked his late career

10 October 2015

Should you wish to have a good copy of the 1916 edition of Wisden, cricket’s annual bible, you should be prepared to part with at least £5,000 and, quite possibly, much more than that. This reflects its rarity — the Great War ensured that the almanac had a limited print run — but also the significance of its contents. For the 1916 edition carries the obituaries of Victor Trumper, the wondrous Australian nonpareil and of course, the greatest Champion of them all: W.G. Grace.

The summer game had never seen anything like Grace before and never will again. Other cricketers have scored more runs and taken more wickets than Grace but none did so in more pressing circumstances. The pitches Grace played on in his prime were wicked creatures upon which, most of the time, even the greatest batsmen could never feel in total control. It was a time when batsmen at Lord’s routinely found themselves picking stones out of the wicket. To put it another way, as Richard Tomlinson notes in his new biography, it is very much easier to imagine Grace thriving in modern conditions than it is to imagine current players coping with the kind of cricket Grace dominated.

Only Don Bradman rivals him. The Don’s test average of 99.94 makes Grace’s career average of 39 seem unfussworthy. Yet the manner in which Grace dominated his contemporaries was, well, Bradmanesque. In the 1871 English season, for instance, 17 centuries were scored in first-class matches; Grace accounted for ten of them, averaging 78 for the season. No one else averaged more than 40.

Grace, as David Frith has observed, took batting ‘from its middle ages of development into something that moderns will instantly recognise’. His instinct was to attack wherever possible, and his dominance was such that Tom Emmett, the great Yorkshire fast bowler, complained that ‘he ought to be made to play with a littler bat’. With this came a famous gamesmanship and an attitude to expenses that we might now deem to be of parliamentary scale.

1895, by which time he was 47, proved his Indian summer. First came his hundredth first-class century, then he became the first man to score 1,000 runs by the end of May. Wisden, then coming into its own itself, declared him the cricketer of the year. A subscription fund keenly promoted by the Daily Telegraph raised, in modern terms, more than £1 million for the Champion. Lord Salisbury, leader of the Tory party, contributed £5; not to be outdone, Lord Rosebery, the Liberal prime minister, chipped in £25. No wonder Tomlinson considers Grace ‘the first truly modern international sports star’. The Doctor was not merely famous, he was, in the modern sense, a celebrity too.

Tomlinson, who has a snappy impatience with many of Grace’s previous biographers, rejects the notion Grace was a simple yokel. On the contrary, his approach to batting was quasi-scientific and the Doctor was more intelligent than he seemed. Nevertheless, Tomlinson over-reaches at times. Thus W.G.’s gluttony was ‘perhaps a self-defeating attempt to cope with increasing competitive pressure’ or he ‘may also have been seeking release from private sorrows as he grew older’. Or, possibly, he simply enjoyed eating.

The difficulty with Grace, as with Bradman, comes in explaining just why he was so much better than all his contemporaries. One might as well seek an explanation for Shakespeare or Mozart. Sometimes things just are as they are, resisting any explanation.

Charlie Connelly’s novella, a picaresque tour of the Champion’s final years, does its best to conquer this obstacle but, like Tomlinson, proves unequal to the task. Asked by a journalist how it felt to bring up his hundredth hundred, Grace offers nothing but a dead bat: ‘I knew it was hit well enough that I wouldn’t need to run.’

Connelly’s imagination is warm, however, and his book is a charming curiosity. A melancholy one, too, as Grace grapples with the death, from typhoid, of his beloved daughter Bessie and recalls, too, the passing of his own brother Fred. Old age is a shipwreck and the Doctor was marooned too. He died raging, like Lear with a bat, against the terror of German zeppelin raids on London.

And with him passed an era. In this, the centenary of his death, Grace seems as unique and unfathomable as ever. C.L.R. James, the great Trinidadian writer and cultural critic, still put it best: Grace was a ‘pre-eminent Victorian’. Through him, ‘cricket, the most complete expression of popular life in pre-industrial England, was incorporated into the life of the nation. As far as any social activity can be the work of any one man, he did it.’ The Champion built it and we still play it.

Books feature

Retracing The Thirty-Nine Steps in Buchan’s beloved Borders

To celebrate the centenary of the publication of The Thirty-Nine Steps William Cook travelled to Tweeddale, where John Buchan spent his youthful summers

The scene in Hitchcock's film in which Pamela (Madeleine Carroll) removes her stocking while handcuffed to Hannay (Robert Donat) gives off an erotic spark to this day

10 October 2015

Like Richard Hannay, I had to run to catch the early morning train from London to Edinburgh. Thankfully, unlike Hannay, I wasn’t wanted for murder — I’d merely overslept again. As the train pulled out of King’s Cross, I fished out my old Penguin edition of The Thirty-Nine Steps, Hannay’s first — and most famous —adventure. Each time I reread it, I marvel at what a brilliant book it is — how modern it still seems, how easily it draws you in. As we raced through England towards Buchan’s beloved Borders, I rejoined Hannay on his mad dash across the country, urging him on in his heroic quest to save Britain from the beastly Hun. By the time I’d turned the final page, we’d already reached Berwick. Buchan understood the value of clear and simple writing. He also knew the power of a rattling good yarn.

This year marks the centenary of the publication of The Thirty-Nine Steps — the template for countless spy stories and the inspiration for Hitchcock’s greatest film. A hundred years since Buchan wrote this slim book to wile away a dreary convalescence, his hero Richard Hannay remains the archetypal man of action, the father of James Bond. The Thirty-Nine Steps is a tale of derring-do, but it’s also a heartfelt homage to the landscape of the Scottish Lowlands. What better way would there be to mark this centenary than to visit Buchan’s native land, guided by his granddaughter, Deborah Stewartby? It feels a bit like playing truant, but isn’t that what The Thirty-Nine Steps is all about?

Lady Stewartby meets me off the train at Waverley, demurely dressed in pale green tweed, as elegant and timeless as one of Buchan’s heroines. For her, Buchan’s legacy has been nothing but a bonus — she’s full of admiration for him — but for her father, William Buchan 3rd Baron Tweedsmuir, the writer’s fame cast a longer shadow. The second generation of descendants is always freer than the first.

We drive through Edinburgh, past the Pentland Hills and out into rolling countryside. Now we’re in the Borders, a land unknown to most Englishmen. I’ve only been here once before and had forgotten how beautiful it is. It’s gentler than the Highlands, a pattern of rounded hills and soft meadows. ‘Such an important part of what he writes about is the landscape,’ says Deborah. You can see why he set so many stories here. It’s a perfect hideaway.

Buchan was born in Perth, brought up in Glasgow and spent much of his adult life in England, but here in Tweeddale is where his soul resides. This winding river valley was his mother’s homeland. This was where he spent his youthful summers, hiking across the moors and fishing in the Tweed. ‘Borderlands are special,’ says Deborah. Her grandfather agreed. ‘My chief passion,’ he recalled, ‘was for the Border countryside, and my object in all my prentice writings was to reproduce its delicate charm.’ His thrillers were really pastorals. As Graham Greene observed: ‘What is remarkable about these adventure stories is the completeness of the world they describe.’

It’s tempting to treat Buchan’s books as treasure hunts, but it doesn’t really work that way. ‘John Buchan was a novelist,’ says Deborah. ‘He wasn’t writing a guidebook.’ There are some local landmarks in his novels but that’s not what Buchan is about. His great achievement lies in capturing the subtle ambience of the Lowlands rather than shackling his stories to specific sites. He conjures up the atmosphere, the feeling of a place. ‘The air had the queer rooty smell of bogs, but it was as fresh as mid-ocean,’ says Hannay. ‘It had the strangest effect on my spirits. I actually felt light-hearted.’ Breathing in this fertile scent of wood and water I realise what he meant.

We arrive in Peebles, a handsome market town surrounded by a ring of bare-backed hills. The setting is spectacular, an inspiration for any writer. Buchan’s family owned Bank House, a robust townhouse beside the Tweed, but the main attraction is the John Buchan Story, a charming museum in a grand old hunting lodge on the high street. There’s loads of personal ephemera — photos, letters, bric-a-brac — which really bring him back to life. ‘He’s much loved in this part of the world,’ says Deborah, and the museum articulates that affection. Buchan loved the Borders and the Borders still loves him back.

Deborah shows me round. She’s far too modest to admit it, but she’s played a large part in the museum’s success. A couple of years ago, it was even visited by the Queen. A reading room contains a complete collection of Buchan’s published works, together with letters from luminaries such as Rudyard Kipling, Winston Churchill and Lawrence of Arabia. ‘I cannot thank you enough for all the help you gave me with my speeches,’ reads a letter from King George VI.

Born in 1875, the son of a Presbyterian minister, Buchan squeezed the work of several lifetimes into 64 crowded years. A lawyer, a politician and a journalist (for TheSpectator), he ended up a baron and Governor General of Canada. He died of a brain haemorrhage in 1940, in Montreal.

Deborah never knew her grandfather (he died before she was born) but her father told her a lot about him. The portrait she paints for me is of a kind and courteous man — a natural diplomat, but (like many great writers) reticent and withdrawn. ‘There was always a part of him that he kept to himself,’ she says. ‘He was a very private man.’ Although he was talented in so many ways, the success of The Thirty-Nine Steps astounded him. ‘He never got over his amazement at how popular it was.’

Buchan wrote four more Hannay novels (‘he was a practical Scot, and he discovered that they made money’), but though they were mainly written for fun and profit, Deborah believes these books also had a higher purpose. ‘JB had two things that he wanted to say — always. One was that the veneer of civilisation is very thin… And the other thing was, he wanted people to realise that evil comes in very attractive forms.’ It was an important message for those difficult times — and for our times, too. ‘I think people are discovering that he had things to say about much that is troubling us now.’ Hannay’s second adventure, Greenmantle, about a charismatic guerrilla leader who whips up an Islamist uprising in the Middle East, could almost have been written with Osama bin Laden in mind. Yet Buchan never forgot that writing is useless unless it entertains. ‘A story has to have a beginning, a middle and an end, and he was a very good storyteller,’ says Deborah.

Despite a succession of demanding jobs and a lifetime of ill-health (probably Crohn’s disease, still undiagnosed at the time) Buchan somehow managed to write 100 books. ‘The thing I wish I had was his powers of concentration!’ says Deborah. His 30 novels are best remembered, but he also published numerous biographies, and a 24-volume history of the Great War, written contemporaneously, which appeared fortnightly in the Times.

His life was far from plain sailing — his brother and his best friend were killed on the same day in the first world war — but his Calvinist upbringing gave him an inner resilience and self-discipline which carried him through life. ‘I reckon fortitude’s the biggest thing a man can have,’ he wrote. ‘Just to go on enduring when there’s no guts or heart left in you.’ No wonder his favourite book was The Pilgrim’s Progress. He loved its plain narrative, ‘its picture of life as a pilgrimage over hill and dale’. It’s a summary that could double as a description of his own writing.

We drive on, through fields and forests, past the ruins of ancient hilltop forts, to Broughton, the village where the young Buchan spent his summers with his grandparents. Their farmhouse is just as Buchan described it, ‘at the mouth of a shallow glen, bounded by high green hills’. Today Deborah lives in this historic house with her husband Lord Stewartby — like Buchan, a former Tory MP. I am shown the room where Buchan used to write, and where his parents were married. As we drink tea in the kitchen, a dog dozing beside the stove, Buchan’s friendly ghost feels very close at hand.

Deborah drives me back to Waverley to catch the last train to London. As Buchan’s Borderland fades into bland suburbia, I recall something he wrote in his autobiography shortly before he died: ‘The Border hills were my own possession, a countryside in which my roots ran deep.’ Like so many of his countrymen, Buchan was a Scottish patriot and an ardent unionist. ‘The narrower kinds of fanaticism, which have run riot elsewhere in Scotland, rarely affected the Borders,’ he wrote in 1940. His lush Border Heimat is now the only Conservative seat in Scotland. I wonder what he’d think?

As my train heads south, I take up The Thirty-Nine Steps again for the umpteenth time. After my literary outing, Buchan’s evocation of the Lowlands seems more vivid than ever. He himself called the book a ‘shocker’. I reckon it’s actually a poem in disguise. ‘I always felt a little ashamed that profit should accrue from what had given me so much amusement,’ he reflected towards the end of his busy life. ‘I had no purpose in writing except to please myself; and even if my books had not found a single reader I would have felt amply repaid.’


The most gripping sea-catastrophe writing I have read outside Conrad

A life at sea

10 October 2015

When the novelist David Vann was 13, his father — a difficult, unhappy dreamer in his thirties, constantly in dread, as Vann puts it, ‘of becoming something other than what he had always imagined himself to be’, and who had failed first as a dentist and then as a commercial fisherman in Alaska — blew his head off while talking on the phone to his second wife. ‘She heard parts of his head dripping from the ceiling,’ Vann told the New York Times not long ago. ‘She still can’t use the phone with that ear.’

That history of grief, violence and trouble haunts every page of this memoir. When it begins, 30-year-old Vann, with his cool and beautiful Nancy by his side, has already had some sea-adventures and disasters. He has done well professionally and has taught creative writing at Stanford and Cornell. He is kicking around the coast of Turkey and outside Bodrum he sees a giant, beautiful steel hull, 90 foot long, waiting to be fitted out and finished. He is smitten with its possibilities of escape and fulfilment. A cartoon Turk called Seref, president of the Bodrum Chamber of Commerce, winds him in with little cups of coffee and plates of galaktoboureko. Vann borrows money like there is no tomorrow — a total of $600,000, from friends, relations and credit card companies, dreaming of the future in which this steel hull will become the beautifully varnished floating, cruising classroom in which to take foreigners on educational tours of the Caribbean and the Med.

You gaze entranced as his destiny unfolds. Seref is a cheat. Hugely expensive diesel engines are wrongly installed and seawater corrodes them from inside. Smooth expensive paint falls off the hull, decks leak, the steering system is rubbish, money runs out and the world becomes a prison of despair. Why did he ever imagine that running a large boat might be a version of freedom?

Vann must ooze charm. He persuades ever more friends and acquaintances to lend him more money and eventually he heads off in the completed boat for its winter cruising grounds in the Caribbean. Calypso never promised a more delicious destination. But this is an Odyssean piece of mythopoiesis and off the coast of Morocco, at night, in a rising wind, Vann’s journey turns for Hades.

At first the hydraulics come adrift of the rudder and then the rudder itself falls away. No steering in an increasingly wild stretch of the Atlantic. For the following 30 pages Vann pulls off the most gripping passage of sea-catastrophe writing I have read outside Conrad, a chest-tightening, concretely detailed, cold, sickening and cumulatively desperate depiction of life turning murderous. By his own account, using only the throttles on the two big Perkins diesels, he manages his big and ungainly craft in huge and steepening seas. A German freighter hovers nearby, vulturine, waiting to claim the boat for salvage. A Moroccan helicopter arrives but has no radio and cannot communicate. Eventually, after titanic struggles, Vann’s boat is taken in tow, he gets his crew into a life raft and in thrashing, rolling breakers climbs aboard the German ship, everyone safe, and his life in ruins.

You can’t help but admire Vann the writer. Any addict of heavy weather sailing should settle into a great evening by the fire for this passage alone. But Vann the man is a rather different matter. Almost no one comes well out of this story except the sainted Nancy. Men in dockyards, lawyers, employees: virtually all are dark and untrustworthy. His honesty about his own failings — a cocktail of discontent, self-justification, unhappiness, fear, guilt, shame, self-pity and persecution — is so extreme it is almost toxic. Complicated legal and financial wrangles ensue until eventually the replacement rudder falls off again, taking a bit of hull with it, and the boat sinks into over 5,000 feet of water, a mile down, with Nancy and Vann once again floating free.

Perhaps this book is about the gap between writer and man. Take for example his wonderful description of the beauties of welding, ‘the funnel of energy shielded by the inert gas’, ‘a miniature environment of purity’, the aluminium forming ‘a molten crescent moon’, a process ‘as beautiful as writing or love’. Irresistible, visionary. But then Google ‘David Vann welds scary’ and you will be brought face to face with something else: blobs of half-attached metal, hopelessly done, the essential inadequacy of the home-made trimaran in which Vann made a (later, failed) attempt to sail around the world. But he could write it perfect.


Letters: Spain vs Catalonia, hedgehogs vs badgers, Palmer vs Moore

10 October 2015

Spanish practices

Sir: In your leading article last week you wrote: ‘Yes, Catalonia and Scotland were independent in the 16th century.’ True about Scotland, but not Catalonia. Since 1162, the Kingdom of Aragón and the county of Barcelona have been a single entity and, since 1475, the Catholic kings and their descendants have ruled both Castile and Aragón. The Spanish 16th century was essentially ruled by the King Emperor Charles I of Spain and his son Philip II, although Spanish kings would appoint viceroys in all the territories of the Kingdom of Aragón. To legitimise their claims, Catalan nationalists often compare their situation with that of Quebec or Scotland. But such a strategy will only succeed with the unwary.
Eduardo Barrachina
London N1

Sir: I agree with you on the limited strategic and social skills of the Spanish prime minister in the management of domestic policy in general, and particularly with regards to Catalonia (Leading article, 3 October). But Catalonia is not Scotland — it was never a sovereign state with its own monarchy and parliament. It is also important to mention that in the most recent regional elections, the separatists obtained 62 seats against the 71 seats that they managed in 2012, meaning they have lost almost 15 per cent of their seats. And their proposed referendum challenges a fundamental principle. To comply with and enforce the law is one of the core functions of any government. Those laws can be modified through democratically established procedures, and respecting the right to vote of all Spaniards is essential.
Ines Rivera
London NW3

Prickly problem

Sir: I agree with Simon Barnes (3 October) that we should encourage the hedgehog population, but it is not as simple as making some holes in the fence and leaving a few rotten logs around. When I rang a hedgehog hospital to see if I could give a couple of its patients a home, the first thing they asked was whether we had badgers in our area. Badgers flip hedgehogs on to their backs and munch through their soft bellies. We have a large garden with superb hedgehog cover and wild sections but as hedgehogs roam over a couple of miles they would almost certainly get eaten, and the hospital said ‘no’. Since badgers are nocturnal, most people don’t realise how large their population has grown. These days, you’re much more likely to find a squashed badger on the side of the road than a squashed hedgehog.
Marie East
Hunts Green, Newbury

Wilder assertion

Sir: Lloyd Evans (Arts, 3 October) quotes the great Billy Wilder as saying: ‘In comedy every minute over 90 counts against you.’ Why then do Wilder’s two masterpieces The Apartment and Some Like It Hot run at 125 and 120 minutes respectively? And why does Irma La Douce run at 147?
David Hare
London NW3

Agriculture and Sir Keith

Sir: Regarding Charles Moore’s response to my letter (Notes, 3 October) on my encounter with Sir Keith Joseph, Mr Moore has still not explained why, in support of his case he stated that, ‘I cannot find that he [Sir Keith] had any position with Nottingham University’ when he knew that the interview, at which Sir Keith was present in 1964, did not take place at Nottingham University. I have no intention of questioning the evidence of Mr Moore’s friend who stated that, in terms of agriculture, Sir Keith ‘knew nothing about it’. However, inter alia, I was informed by a friend that Sir Keith had an interest in the third world and industrial policy groups which included agricultural matters and that he was involved with the Farmers’ Union of Wales in 1976, the year the wider Race Relations Act was passed. Finally, as I stated before, no apology from Mr Moore is necessary. However, permit me to remind him respectfully that, in our society, it is not uncommon to find people presiding over matters of which they do not know.
Professor Sir Geoff Palmer
Penicuik, Scotland

At home in the 1950s

Sir: I want to reassure Melissa Kite that her ideal village exists (Real life, 26 September). In fact, she needs to talk to her colleague Martin Vander Weyer, because North Yorkshire has lots of villages of the kind she is looking for. Yes, it’s a long way from London, but we have good broadband and plenty of people work from home. After years as an expatriate living in the Far East, I moved here 11 years ago and I love it. Although we are losing village shops, if you live close to a market town, you don’t have to go far for your shopping and you always bump into people you know. There is a surprising mixture of backgrounds, jobs and interesting discussions — and we all know where meat comes from. It is always 1956 here.
Susie Taylor
Old Malton, North Yorkshire

Prom dates

Sir: I have had the good fortune to attend the Last Night of the Proms twice, once in the 1960s (Sir Malcolm Sargent) and again in the 1990s (Sir Andrew Davis). This occasion, as everyone knows, is uniquely British, but in recent years the BBC has chosen to dilute the national character of the music and, for the third consecutive year, opted for a foreign conductor. That was what I, not unreasonably, objected to (Letters, 3 October).
The Revd Anthony Pellegrini
Harrow, Middlesex


Sorry, America, but it looks like Joe Biden is your next president


10 October 2015

I have a sinking feeling that Joe Biden might be the next president of the United States. In a brilliant essay published by the American Spectator in 2010, Angelo Codevilla of Boston University foresaw a popular revolt against ‘America’s ruling class’. What he calls ‘the Country party’ repudiates the co-option of the mainstream Republican party by the bureaucratic behemoth that is Washington, DC. You cannot understand the popularity of Donald Trump until you grasp the essential characteristics of this Country party. White, male, ageing Americans are sick of political correctness. They are sick of carefully calibrated talking points. They are sick of immigrants. They are sick of wars in faraway places of which they know nothing and care less. And they are sick of government programmes — even ones they collect money from. In all his crassness, Trump speaks for these people. The more he says the unsayable — ‘Build a wall [along the border with Mexico]!’, ‘Send back the Syrians!’ — the more the ruling class shudders. And the more the ruling class shudders, the better he does. As I write, the latest polls for the Republican primaries in Iowa and New Hampshire have him in front. In the former, he is on 24 per cent. Jeb Bush, the ruling class’s candidate, is on 7 per cent.

Yet there will surely come a time when Trump will overplay his hand — or perhaps the costs of campaigning will start to exceed the benefits to his brand. When that moment comes, white, male, ageing Americans will need a new champion. Of course, a professional politician like the Vice President is as much a member of the ruling class as it is possible to be. But never underestimate the appeal of crassness at a time like this. Biden is routinely described as a blowhard and a loudmouth. To the Country party, that’s alluring. The latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll says Biden would fare significantly better than Clinton in a contest with any leading Republican contender, including Trump, whom he would trounce 56 to 35 per cent.

Henry Kissinger, whose life I am halfway through chronicling, was never much good at American domestic politics (his friend William F. Buckley referred to his ‘dogged ignorance’ of the subject). Grand strategy was Kissinger’s thing. But by the time of the 1968 election, he had learned the lesson that ‘the typical political leader of the contemporary managerial society is a man with a strong will, a high capacity to get himself elected, but no very great conception of what he is going to do when he gets into office’. Biden fits this bill. He understands, for example, the enduring appeal of the reluctant candidate, who only enters the race when his party and his country insist that he do so — hence his public agonising about whether to run. He understands, too, that a Democratic victory will depend on keeping together President Obama’s anti-Country coalition of groups who still see Washington as their friend: women, the young and minorities (call them the ‘Supreme Court party’) — hence his much-publicised August meeting with Senator Elizabeth Warren, the darling of the left. Note, too, that Biden would be the candidate most likely to inherit the formidable, data-driven electoral machine that won two successive Obama victories.

ON TUESDAY I launched Kissinger, volume one, at the Four Seasons — still the powerbrokers’ number-one restaurant in Manhattan — courtesy of my favourite international man of mystery, Nicolas Berggruen. Former mayor Mike Bloomberg swung by, triggering a wave of acclaim and flash photography. A Bloomberg run for the White House remains the Upper East Side’s dream. It isn’t going to happen, alas. ‘You can’t win,’ is how he succinctly puts it. One of many handicaps is that Bloomberg knows exactly what he would do if he ever got to the White House. He is a bit too Lee Kuan Yew for the rest of America. That ban on supersize sodas has not been forgotten by the Country party.

It’s different in South America, where I spent the weekend. Argentina’s presidential election is just days away and the ruling class — the Peronists, who have dominated since the era of Juan and Eva Perón — are nervous. Peronism’s signature combination is unaffordably generous welfare and (consequently) regular financial crises. Periodically, Argentine voters weary of the latter and today, after 12 years under another Peronist husband-and-wife team, Néstor and Cristina Kirchner, change is in the air. Admittedly, two of the three leading candidates are Peronists. But the third, Mauricio Macri, is the Mike Bloomberg of Buenos Aires. A successful businessman who has been mayor of the city since 2007, Macri might just win if he can force a second round that would pit him one-on-one against the Peronist Daniel Scioli. If, meanwhile, Hillary Clinton goes on to win the US presidency, Argentines can say that Peronism has moved north. Her path to power would essentially be the same as the one taken by both Eva Perón and Cristina Kirchner.

From The Archives

Bulgarian tragedy

Bulgarian troops on the Doiran front (Photo: Getty)

10 October 2015

From ‘Bulgaria and Greece’, The Spectator, 9 October 1915: The fact that the British people will in all probability soon be at war with Bulgaria is a matter of very deep regret, for this nation has always watched the development of the peasant state with strong sympathy… But though we can and do sympathise with the Bulgarian people, it will be quite impossible to prevent the consequences of their king’s evil deeds from falling upon them. War is a stern business, and the allies cannot alter their course of action even though they understand Bulgaria’s difficulties. Regret it as we may, the Bulgarian people will have to reap the harvest they have sown, or allowed to be sown.

Any other business

Finally, a business rates reform! If only I knew what it meant

(Photo: Getty)

10 October 2015

This column has repeatedly cried that something must be done about business rates. Yes, it’s fair to ask businesses, as well as individual citizens, to contribute to local public-sector provision — even though businesses can’t vote. But it was far from fair during the recession to go on collecting £26 billion a year from hard-pressed firms based on an arbitrary multiplier applied to out-of-date rental valuations, in many cases long after those values had slumped to the point at which the rates were a higher cost than the rents.

The same firms were being charged all over again for basic services such as refuse disposal, and complaints that the system was poisoning small-business growth and town-centre regeneration were greeted by ministers only with issue-ducking deferrals of overdue revaluations. When I argued two years ago that ‘an across-the-board cut in the business-rates multiplier would swiftly pay for itself — and more — through new jobs, better profits and the taxes they generate’, no one seemed to be listening.

Well, now Osborne has done something at last; and as so often with this Chancellor, we are left to work out what its effect will be, and what is his political calculation. Henceforth, local authorities will keep the £26 billion (rather than remitting half of it to the Treasury) and will be able to cut business rates if they think that will attract new business investment and thereby increase total local revenues; authorities with elected mayors will also be able to increase rates, by a small margin, so long as the takings are spent on infrastructure improvements.

Those who believe Osborne’s ‘northern powerhouse’ is a political sham immediately howl that the new system will exacerbate the ‘north-south divide’ by sucking economic activity towards south-eastern authorities that can most easily afford to cut rates. Others think competition will be more localised, with enterprise-minded, cost-efficient (which most likely means Tory-run) councils attracting businesses from less dynamic, more budget-stressed neighbours — which will mostly turn out to be Labour or Lib Dem fiefdoms. And so we see Osborne’s political mind at work in a scheme that also takes heat off ministers by delegating troublesome decisions to lower levels of government. As a long-time critic of the previous business-rates regime, I greet the new one with cautious optimism: let’s wait and see what it really does for local prosperity.

Canadian lessons

Another cunning Osborne plan revealed in his conference speech is the pooling of 89 council pension funds — accounting for some £180 billion of investments — into six larger ‘wealth funds’ that will be encouraged to invest in infrastructure projects. The model for this is Canada, whose teachers’ and municipal employees’ pension schemes just can’t seem to buy enough public hardware at home and abroad, currently owning several of our ports and airports plus stakes in Anglian Water and Scottish gas as well as the High Speed One rail link to the Channel Tunnel.

The equivalent UK funds, by contrast, invest just half a per cent of their assets in infrastructure, compared with 8 per cent in countries with larger pooled funds. UK local authority fund trustees continue to place enormous sums — in an old-fashioned way that no doubt still involves lots of lunching, dining and Test match tickets — in passive ‘tracker’ funds run by City firms for fees that are as fat as competition allows. So pooling should lead to cost savings and smarter investing generally, as well as helping to rectify the dire shortage of UK infrastructure investors that recently sent Osborne kowtowing to Chinese institutions with a government guarantee pinned to his back in order to secure funds for the troubled Hinkley Point nuclear project.

And again there’s the politics: sticking it to Unison and other public-sector unions that are such thorns in the Conservatives’ side by redeploying their pension money to fund Osborne’s pet projects, and rubbing it in by hiring former Labour minister Lord Adonis to run a new National Infrastructure Commission that will assess future needs and ‘hold any government’s feet to the fire if it fails to deliver’.

Another long-held sentiment of this column is admiration for the brain (and political pragmatism) of Andrew Adonis. I’m only sorry he isn’t planning to combine this new job with that of Mayor of London, for which he was once tipped: he would have made a better fist of it than Zac Goldsmith or Sadiq Khan, and perhaps he could have offered himself as candidate for both major parties.

Good Yorkshiremen

Denis Healey and my father Deryk Vander Weyer — a big cheese at Barclays and spokesman for the high-street banks during Healey’s chancellorship — had a lot in common. Both were clever, cultured, iconoclastic products of good Yorkshire grammar schools; both wartime majors and post-war socialists (my father finally turned right when he began to appreciate the merits of Margaret Thatcher); both formidable in argument. ‘Now then, young Deryk,’ the then chancellor used to say, only half joking, ‘You’re the man to run the state bank for us after you’re all nationalised.’

Thirty years later, the mellower Healey of old age came north to Helmsley to give a talk about his photography. On the strength of the 1970s connection, I invited him to lunch: he was one of the most entertaining guests I’ve ever had, radiating bonhomie and mischief, flirting gallantly with my widowed mother, ranging wide across literature and history, battling gamely through blank moments of short-term memory failure. Afterwards I took him to the station, with a big old-fashioned camera slung round his neck. An elderly man (though at least a decade younger than Denis) approached and shook his hand. ‘Lord Healey? I never voted for your lot, but I want to thank you for your public service.’ Denis beamed benignly, and took a picture of him.

James Delingpole

A Supreme Court justice and the scary plan to outlaw climate change

South Florida is projected to continue to feel the effects of climate change and many of the cities have begun programs such as installing pumps or building up sea walls to try and combat the rising oceans. (Photo: Getty)

10 October 2015

How do you make an imaginary problem so painfully real that everyone suffers? It’s an odd question to ask, you might think, but it’s one that has been exercising some of the brightest minds in the legal firmament, led by no less a figure than Lord Justice Carnwath of the Supreme Court.

Last month, at an event whose sinister significance might have passed unnoticed had it not been for the digging of Canadian investigative blogger Donna Laframboise, Carnwath contrived to nudge the world a step closer towards enacting potentially the most intrusive, economically damaging and vexatious legislation in history: an effective global ban on so-called ‘climate change’.

The setting was a rather dull-sounding symposium Carnwath organised at King’s College London called ‘Adjudicating the Future: Climate Change and the Rule of Law’. We don’t know the names of the ‘leading judges, lawyers and legal academics’ from 11 nations who attended because the organisers won’t disclose them. What we do know, though, is that you and I helped pay for this three-day shindig: among the sponsors were the Supreme Court, Her Majesty’s government and (publicly funded) King’s College London.

So far, so very dreary. It probably wouldn’t have got into the news at all if the Prince of Wales (Carnwath used to be his attorney general) hadn’t published a letter of support, urging the judiciary to play a ‘crucial role’ in preventing ‘the disastrous consequences of global warming’. But as ever at these grey convocations where men we’ve never heard of decide our future behind closed doors, the devil lies all in the detail.

We can see this in the opening speeches, viewable online and described by Laframboise as ‘among the most terrifying 90 minutes I’ve ever witnessed’. If you’ve the stomach to sit through the faux-judicious burblings, you’ll see what she means: here are leading, influential, international lawyers proposing to reject the scientific method, bypass democracy and permanently shut down the climate debate by declaring ‘global warming’ illegal under international law.

It sounds absurd. Impossible even. But already there is local precedent. This summer, in response to a case brought by a green activist group called the Urgenda Foundation, a Dutch court ruled that the Netherlands government must drastically reduce its greenhouse gas emissions in order to save future generations from the effects of dangerous climate change. Central to the court’s decision — and widely quoted in its ruling — was the allegedly accepted scientific wisdom that the world simply cannot be allowed to heat up by more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels without disastrous consequences.

Had that court done its homework, it would have discovered that the 2°C figure was the arbitrary invention, at the height of the climate scare in the 1990s when the world still was actually warming, of a neo-Malthusian activist-scientist called Hans Joachim Schellnhuber (who also advised the Pope on his recent, controversial encyclical on the environment). Schellnhuber has himself admitted: ‘Two degrees is not a magical limit. It’s clearly a political goal. The world will not come to an end right away in the event of stronger warming, nor are we definitely saved if warming is not as significant. The reality, of course, is much more complicated.’

Indeed it is. There is evidence to suggest that even were the planet to heat up to 2.5°C above pre-industrial levels, the benefits — for example in increased crop yields — would outweigh the drawbacks. But no one really knows because global climate is a chaotic system which remains ill-understood even by the ‘experts’. Only a fortnight ago, a new study was published revealing that the oceans are producing, abiotically, unexpectedly vast quantities of isoprene, a volatile organic compound known for cooling properties. No wonder then, that with discoveries like this being made all the time, the alarmists’ doomsday computer models are continually failing to accord with reality: there’s still so much stuff out there that the scientists don’t know.

Which, of course, is precisely what is scary about this scheme being cooked up by Carnwath and his green fellow travellers in the judiciary. What they are proposing is to ignore the uncertainty, act as if the ‘science’ really is ‘settled’ and close the argument forever, using the sledgehammer instrument of the International Court of Justice.

This was the shameless proposal of Carnwath’s keynote speaker, Philippe Sands QC. By making the ‘2°C target’ an ‘obligation under international law’, he suggested, the UN’s General Assembly could impose ‘obligations to reduce emissions, including if necessary by phasing out altogether certain emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases’.

Since carbon dioxide is a natural byproduct of almost every industrial process, you can perhaps imagine the chaos such legislation would cause. It would be great news for lawyers like Sands, of course, and an endless excuse for litigation by the likes of Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. But for businesses and nation states on the receiving end, it would be a disaster.

Meanwhile, in the real world, for no reason that any alarmist scientist has ever managed plausibly to explain, there has been no actual ‘global warming’ for nigh on 19 years. This point ought not to need reiterating. The only reason it has to be — with Groundhog Day regularity, unfortunately — is in order to counter the specious propaganda of an overmighty green establishment embracing everything from the Obama administration and the Vatican to the BBC and, now, it seems, certain members of our famously neutral and apolitical senior judiciary.

Rod Liddle

Spittle is the only thing Labour has left

(Photo: Getty)

10 October 2015

I have started salivating excessively at night. I wake each morning in a pillowed swamp of my own effluvium, a noisome pond which is — I suspect — redolent of rapidly approaching death. I have done the hypochondriac thing and googled the possible causes and there’s a whole bunch of stuff — pancreatitis, close exposure to ionising radiation, rabies, pregnancy, serotonin disease and liver failure, to name but a few. My suspicion is it’s either rabies or pregnancy because I exhibit other symptoms common to both conditions, according to the internet. I cannot abide drinking water, for example, which suggests that I might be hydrophobic, a key indicator of rabies. And when I see Fergal Keane, surrounded by Syrian ‘refugees’ — a putative brain surgeon here, a cheerful transgendered cripple there — emoting himself senseless on the News at Ten, I begin to froth at the mouth and yap furiously, incoherently enraged. That’s rabies, isn’t it?

On the other hand, I have put on a little weight recently, which is inexplicable unless I am with child, for my diet and exercise regimen has remained the same. It may well be that I am in the same position as those cretinous women, usually from places like ‘Leeds’, who present at their local surgery complaining of stomach pains, unaware that they are eight-and-a-half months pregnant as a consequence of some hurried act of sexual intercourse with a fairly close relative. Either way I am obviously very worried, and so is my wife, who has to change the pillow cases every evening.

There are always upsides, however. Always a silver lining. Think positive, as they continually tell you, encouragingly, in places such as hospices. The good news for me is that my hyper-salivation came in incredibly useful this week when I was up in Manchester to protest at the Tory scum attending their annual conference. Others, around me, had long since exhausted their reservoirs of phlegm, gobbing at the smirking, superannuated right-wing filth preparing to enslave us all in perpetual austerity while setting fire to tramps and stamping on the babies of impoverished single mothers.

But reader — let me tell you — thanks to rabies or pregnancy, I was like that Duracell bunny, the one that kept on drumming: I expectorated longer and harder than even the most visceral entryist bearded Trots. Dry-mouthed by teatime, my comrades looked on in awe as I continued to shower Theresa May, Boris Johnson, George Osborne, Michael Gove et al with airborne lagoons of disease-occasioned spittle. For once I was respected, as a community activist and a political warrior, as swathed in my own rectitude as the loathsome Conservatives were eventually swathed in my copious emissions.

This performance of mine may be sufficient, by itself, to elevate me to branch secretary of my local Labour party, that gibbering cabal of perpetually enraged Corbynistas — because it is pretty much all the party has to go on, now. Who has the most capacious vat of adolescent bile in their guts. Who can be the most petulant, irrational and offensive? Who can gob 50 metres or more in between screaming ‘Stop the cuts!’? The rest of the country — that is, 99 per cent of the electorate — may have looked on, either askance or bemused or in utter disgust. But these quiescent dupes do not know the meaning of ‘community justice’ — a phrase used to describe spitting at or punching or maybe simply howling obscene abuse at people with whom we politically disagree, the presumption being that we have the support of ‘ordinary people’ for these actions.

Which of course we do, theoretically, if not actually. They do not know that they support us, of course. But they do support us, dialectically, objectively, as a consequence of their estrangement from the means of production, no matter how comatose these idiots might be right now. We know about alienation and anomie, we know what it does to the souls of Ordinary Working-Class People. We are expending our phlegm, our precious bodily fluids, and our hatred precisely for them — the dozing multitudes who are objectively oppressed by Osborne’s austerity and the City of London and the big multinational companies and the ghost of Margaret Thatcher and also Murdoch and the rest of the lying fascist press. We know all this, because we, fortunately enough, are enlightened — and sure, they don’t, yet, quite get it. But one day they will, surely. Even supine imbeciles one day need to stand up.

Spitting in the face of Theresa May is a revolutionary act and one to be unequivocally commended. I would direct you to either our new leader Jeremy Corbyn or the intellectual colossus that is his shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, for evidence to support this thesis. Both believe in something called ‘direct action’ and that other charming thing ‘community justice’. It is true that Mr Corbyn rather late in the day enjoined the rest of us not to make political protests personal because it somehow harmed the democratic process. But this was surely a sop to the establishment, given what the two men have previously said about how to fight the appalling Tories. On the streets, according to McDonnell, fight them on the streets. When you don’t get your way via the bourgeois ballot box or as a consequence of entirely justifiable trade union action, take to the streets and burn stuff, wreck stuff, have a bit of a punch-up with the rozzers — and flob. Flob for Britain! Cough it all up and let it all out — the further the better.

My mysterious condition ensures that I can flob like a wizard, like a daemon. I am the Che Guevara of tobacco-inflected greenies. That is all what we, on the left, still have. Expectorant, by the gallon.


One in ten British babies will soon be born via IVF. So why is it taboo?

Pretty soon, one in ten British babies will begin life in a Petri dish. So why is it still such a taboo subject?


10 October 2015

As a result of a ruptured appendix, I am infertile. The appendicitis was followed by gangrene and peritonitis, which permanently blocked my fallopian tubes and left me having to do IVF for a chance to have my own child.

I have never felt shame about my situation but I have felt isolation and grief, both of which would be very much more bear-able if people were prepared to talk openly about in-vitro fertilisation — to dispel the taboo that still surrounds it.

IVF in its various forms is incredibly common these days. More than 2.5 million babies born in the past seven years began their life in a Petri dish. For various reasons, some known, some unknown, overall birth rates in the West are falling rapidly and infertility is rising: pretty soon as many as one in every ten children born in this country will owe its life to fertility treatment.

You might reasonably think, then, that when I underwent my first (failed) IVF cycle, I’d have been surrounded by friends and acquaintances keen to give advice and share their experiences with me. The truth is that I struggled to find any, and when I raised the subject in public people either shifted uncomfortably — as though I had transgressed a social boundary — or reacted with fascination, wanting to know all the ins and outs.

Everyone I spoke to knew someone who had been through it, but no one would admit to having done IVF themselves. One couple I met at a dinner party knew intimate details of a ‘friend’s’ treatment that they were only too willing to share. When I later discovered this same couple had non-identical twins, their expertise suddenly made sense. They did subsequently own up but I was disheartened that they’d been so coy at first.

To a certain extent, I understand all this reluctance to talk about IVF. Back in the 1980s when the first ‘test-tube babies’ were being born, patients were under pressure to keep their treatment secret. The receptionist at the pioneering Bourn Hall Clinic, Vivien Collins, has spoken of women expressing disgust that she worked in a ‘test centre where they made babies’. And that horrified reaction, the idea that IVF involves some sinister process, still lingers today.

Last spring the designers Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana branded IVF children ‘synthetic’, which provoked a public spat with Elton John. For most people of my parents’ generation, IVF is an unknown and therefore alarming.

The other reason for keeping schtum is superstition. Couples feel that if they talk about their hopes, they may not come true. And even if all goes well, having a IVF friend can be hard. It might seem sensible to buddy up with another patient in the clinic, to share the ups and downs, the trials of nightly injections and invasive scans — but statistically only one woman in three will end up with a baby at the end of the agonising process. How do you commiserate with your pal or continue a friendship when you’re no longer in the same boat? So women in fertility-clinic waiting rooms traditionally stare down at their iPads and stalk fertility forums looking for advice, rather than turn to those beside them.

A warning to anyone thinking of IVF: there’s something both glutinous and ghoulish about those fertility forums. It’s a euphemistic world where the language of relationships is infantilised and creepy acronyms are universally adopted. There are no boyfriends or husbands, only ‘DH’ (dear husband) for even the most useless man. Rather than being wished luck, you are ‘sent babydust’ and women’s tales of miscarriage are peppered with tragicomic flying-baby emoticons. You must navigate your way through the BFNs and the BFPs (that’s big fat negative and big fat positive) and my personal favourite BD (baby dance — yes, that’s sexual intercourse) to try to make sense of your experience.

The forums make me wish all the more that we could, as a society, talk openly and sensibly about infertility. The women online are clearly tough: they’ve endured numerous, arduous treatment cycles, not to mention miscarriages. Yet online they communicate in the written equivalent of baby voices. We do everyone a disservice by being coy.

If we talked about it more, we’d all know that fertility treatment isn’t the preserve of the spoiled, rich or vain — it’s available on the NHS and rightly so. With fewer people able to buy a home in their twenties, more women working and life expectancy increasing, it’s only going to get more common for women to have children later in life. And as mothers get older and treatment more effective and cheaper, the ratio of assisted to natural births is only going to narrow. We should be teaching our daughters not just how to avoid getting pregnant, but what to do if they can’t conceive. It would help women plan their families better if girls knew from the start about all the difficulties of a late-in-life pregnancy.

Because of the stigma still hovering over IVF, the science is moving faster than public awareness, and this is dangerous as well as unnecessary. Many IVF clinics are now offering both ICSI (intracytoplasmic sperm injection, which means the doctors can select a healthy-looking sperm) and genetic screening. But we just don’t know how safe either of these procedures are, or whether they’re more likely to lead to babies with birth defects. The frontier children are only just reaching adulthood and studies into potential health risks remain inconclusive. If the public were informed and interested, they’d be pushing for the NHS to fund rigorous studies and hold unscrupulous clinics to account.

There should be no shame at all in having an IVF baby, or in undergoing IVF. The children born of IVF are meticulously planned for and warmly welcomed, more so than any ‘Oops, the condom split’ baby. If I’m ever lucky enough to have a child, and to find myself in receipt of those awkward questions about reproduction that every mother is asked, I’m going to tell my child the truth about how they came to be, because they should be proud.


Was BBC1’s Rooney show more scripted reality than documentary?

Wayne Rooney with his wife Coleen (Photo: BBC)

10 October 2015

Close to the Edge (BBC4, Tuesday) feels very much like an idea conceived during a particularly good night in the BBC bar. Why not take the ‘scripted reality’ methods of such youth hits as The Only Way Is Essex and apply them to a group of over-65s living in Bournemouth?

So it is that the chosen oldies are given one main characteristic each, and required to act out events from their own lives — events that might or might not have happened if the cameras weren’t there. Or as Tuesday’s opening caption rather optimistically put it, ‘Some of the scenes have been constructed purely for your enjoyment.’

Which scenes these were, the programme didn’t of course specify. But judging from the wooden way in which much of the dialogue was delivered — even including the word ‘hello’ — I’m guessing it was quite a lot.

We did get occasional moments of the promised enjoyment, most supplied by John, a comedian by profession, but here cast in the role of Older Man Looking for Love. Early on, he approached two women of his age in a supermarket and made a few jokes about how fat he is: a procedure he unexpectedly described afterwards as ‘chatting them up’. Later, another female peer failed to cheer him up as much as she hoped by assuring him that ‘some women like them cuddly’, especially when she added ‘I’m not one that does.’

Even so, this sort of show naturally stands or falls on whether you mind a television documentary giving itself permission to make things up — and, at the risk of being on the wrong side of history, I think I do. About halfway through, John told friends that one reason he was nervous about dating again was that he’d nursed his wife ‘to the bitter end’, and didn’t want to risk going through the same experience with anybody else. By being both so obviously heartfelt and so wholly believable, it was a remark that stood out vividly from almost everything else in the programme.

Otherwise, Close to the Edge followed the usual television policy of rejecting all those hideous stereotypes about old people behaving like old people, preferring to emphasise how they’re up for everything, from founding businesses to hurtling along on zipwires.

Close to the Edge (Photo: BBC)

Close to the Edge (Photo: BBC)

Sadly, this only goes to show that TV still hasn’t taken any notice of a letter of complaint written by Grandpa in The Simpsons as long ago as 1990. ‘I am disgusted with the way old people are depicted on television,’ he protested. ‘We are not all vibrant, fun-loving sex maniacs. Many of us are bitter, resentful individuals who remember the good old days when entertainment was bland and inoffensive.’

On the plus side, though, this does mean that Grandpa would have loved Rooney: the Man behind the Goals (BBC1, Monday) — which accorded its subject roughly the same level of reverence as Sir Alastair Burnet’s royal documentaries used to give theirs.

Taking the Sir Alastair role here was Gary Lineker, who began by stressing the mystique that surrounds a ‘man watched by millions, known by few’. Sticking to the royal-doc template, he then revealed that in private Wayne Rooney is a loving family man, who likes nothing better than playing with his kids and joshing affectionately with wife Coleen. Meanwhile, all those old tabloid tales were dispatched in a couple of enigmatic euphemisms about him being a bit silly when young, followed by repeated assertions of his new-found maturity.

The programme certainly reminded us what a footballing prodigy Rooney was. (When he became the youngest player to score for England, Coleen, already his girlfriend, was still at school.) Yet, even here, there was an unmistakable sense of pulled punches. Several former England teammates remembered thinking that he could end up alongside Pele and Maradona as one of the indisputable football greats. So why hasn’t he? The question went entirely unanswered, not least because it also went entirely unasked. Instead, Gary simply invited a few more celebs to praise Rooney to the skies and tell us again how mature he now is, before moving into his peroration about the man’s place among ‘an elite group of international stars who transcend the game’.

In fact, there’s no denying that Rooney did come across very well — but then again, that was transparently the idea. The closing credits included a shamelessly big thanks to Paul Stretford, without mentioning that Stretford is Rooney’s famously powerful agent (and a man who may not have much to learn, even from palace officials, about controlling a documentary). In other words, I have a strong feeling that Close to the Edge might not have been the BBC’s only scripted reality show of the week — with The Man behind the Goals also containing some scenes that were perhaps constructed purely for our enjoyment.


I’ve never thought much of John Lennon’s music – until now

John Lennon (Photo: Getty)

10 October 2015

It’s probably blasphemous to admit that I’ve never thought very much of John Lennon’s music. Common sense tells me it must be good but it’s never made much of an impact on me no matter how hard I’ve tried to appreciate it. If I like a Beatles song, I usually discover it’s by George. But the discovery from a radio trailer (reluctantly, I’ll have to admit they do sometimes work) that Lennon would have been 75 this week was shocking enough (how could he ever be that old?) to make me tune in on Thursday night to John Lennon’s Last Day.

Stephen Kennedy’s docudrama for Radio 2 (produced by James Robinson) took us through the events of 8 December 1980, from the moment Lennon woke up in his seventh-floor apartment in the Dakota building on West 72nd Street in New York to the fatal shots that killed him, delivered by Mark Chapman from a .38 revolver hidden under his coat. No attempt was made to explain Chapman’s actions. We were simply taken through Lennon’s day, as if walking side-by-side with him. The effect was startlingly vivid, making real how brutal that ending was.

Lennon got up early that day, we were told by the narrator (played deadpan by Ian Hart), before going for a haircut at his favourite barber’s, ready for a photo shoot later that morning with Annie Leibovitz (the result was that extraordinary picture of a naked John curled up against a fully clothed Yoko). Then he gave a radio interview with RKO to promote his first album in five years, Double Fantasy, in which he says, poignantly, ‘My work is not finished until I’m dead and buried and I hope that’s a long, long time.’

At four o’clock John walked out of the Dakota building on his way to a recording studio on West 44th Street. He had to wait for a few minutes for his car to arrive, by which time a small group of fans had gathered round him asking for autographs, one of whom was Chapman. A photograph exists of Chapman with Lennon, taken by an amateur photographer (long before selfies). Chapman failed to carry out his plan at that time (offbalanced by Lennon’s chatty friendliness) but he was still there, lurking in the shadows, when Lennon returned at 10.50 p.m., and this time he accomplished his deadly mission, shooting Lennon in the back four times at close range. His fifth shot missed.

This was all very different from a Radio 4 drama, which would probably have filled in the back story, amplified the details, given us more of the history. Here, instead, we had long clips from Lennon’s songs, carefully spliced in to add to the spooky sense that Lennon had no idea what was ahead of him.

Another hugely influential, if troubled, figure from the last century was celebrated on the World Service on Tuesday. Naomi Grimley’s profile of Eleanor Roosevelt took us to the upper Hudson valley where the former First Lady retired after the death of her husband, Franklin D. Roosevelt. From there she would often broadcast to the nation, one of the first to realise the potential of radio to reach into people’s homes and get your message across by speaking in the most direct way possible to voters. She began with a most terrible high-pitched screech but after training became a powerful voice on air.

It was Eleanor who broadcast to the nation on the evening of 7 December 1941, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, encouraging Americans to get behind the war effort: ‘We know what we have to face and we know that we are ready to face it.’ She held her own press conferences, which only women were allowed to attend, wrote a weekly newspaper column for years entitled ‘My Day’, blogging about her life as First Lady, and later was chair of the committee that drafted the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Yet in spite of all her efforts in forging a life for women beyond housework and children (she was criticised for not playing the wife and not overseeing the housekeeping at the White House) she ended up doing adverts for margarine on TV, as if all her achievements were as nothing.

‘It makes me cringe,’ Allida Black, editor of Eleanor Roosevelt’s papers, told us. We heard a clip. Back comes the high-pitched, whiny voice, the housewifely dialogue, the phoney humility. So different from the poised earlier broadcasts in which she rallied young women to demand the vote and told them, ‘I have faith in you.’

On The Conversation this week (Monday, World Service) Kim Chakanetsa talked with two women who were dealing with missing family members. Visaka Dharmadasa’s son disappeared 15 years ago while serving with the Sri Lankan army against the Tamil Tigers separatist movement. She still believes he is alive somewhere, and now campaigns for peace and for other families who are searching for family members who have gone missing. It’s not like when someone dies, she said. ‘Normally, we say, the time heals. But this, no, the time doesn’t heal.’ Her pain was tangible. She still keeps the chocolates she had ready for her son when he was next on leave in her freezer.


It may have a meagre script and no plot but Farinelli and the King is still a major work of art

Like observing a child absorbed in a solitary game: Mark Rylance as Philippe V in 'Farinelli and the King'

10 October 2015

Philippe V was a Bourbon prince who secured the throne of Spain using his family connections. Claire van Kampen is a writer who relied on the same method to secure a West End opening for her play about Philippe. It stars Mark van Kampen (aka Mark Rylance) as the charmingly dotty Frenchman. Philippe was a manic depressive who regarded his Spanish subjects as a puzzling inconvenience. He had no interest in governing them and preferred to laze around the countryside, looking at stars, listening to music and indulging his eccentricities. We first meet him in bed trying to hook a fish supper from a goldfish bowl. Courtiers secretly plot to oust him while the queen scours Europe for a singer capable of cheering him up. She hires Farinelli (‘little baker’), who warbles to him day and night in his rural retreat. Farinelli was blessed with the finest vocal kit in Europe but he resented working in a rustic backwater so he filled the longueurs by cultivating a chaste romance with the queen. That’s about it, plot-wise. And there’s little character development in this threadbare frock-fest.

Yet it’s a major work of art for two reasons. First, the set is among the costliest and loveliest things I’ve ever seen in a theatre. The rear of the stage has been rebuilt as a miniature auditorium with three pillared galleries overlooking the playing area. The facings are painted a gorgeous deep blue-grey with austere gilded decorations. The panelled roof is scattered with winged stars like butterflies or twinkling comets. The sumptuous restraint of this design is stunning. The lights are artfully satisfying as well. Two huge candelabra shimmer with naked flames (a nod to Wolf Hall) and they’re supplemented by conventional spots concealed so effectively I couldn’t locate them. The effect of this virtuoso display is to immerse us totally in the 18th century.

Secondly, there’s Mark Rylance. His turn as the deranged, bumbling king has no obvious antecedent. He isn’t a physical clown. Glances, tricks and comic gestures are alien to him. Atmosphere and rhythm are his materials. His pace is slow, estuarial. He has some of Stan Laurel’s ruminative sweetness but he also has the endearing, fatalistic candour of a tramp. He gives the king sudden bursts of emotion, of laughter, of sadness and anger. Because he deadpans every line it’s hard to convey the hilarity of his complaint, for example, that in Spain the Spaniards serve only Spanish food. ‘It’s all they do.’ In a fit of lust he tenderly gropes his wife and then discards her. ‘Stop that,’ he scolds her. Oddly enough, he doesn’t trigger gales of mirth throughout the show but he creates the sense that a huge laugh may come at any moment. It’s transfixing. I almost felt I wasn’t watching a ‘performance’ at all, a calculated imposture that tricks you into feeling amused, but a character study that belongs to nature, not to art. It’s like observing a child absorbed in a solitary game. He resides in this world while participating in some inscrutable other dimension which the viewer can access only through the child’s blurred reflections and responses.

Rylance, luckily, is on stage nearly all the time but whenever he departs the tension dissolves and the script settles into its meagre components and becomes a tepid love triangle featuring a singer who grudgingly accepts a king’s patronage while fumblingly assaulting a queen’s virtue. The dialogue, which makes no concession to antiquity, is funny for all the wrong reasons. An official offers Philippe a quill and parchment and asks him to ‘sign off’ on the ‘defence budget’. Oodles of cash have been hurled at this show and its 18-strong company of actors and musicians. Evita would have cost less. I hope they make their money back.

Medea, adapted by Rachel Cusk, gives us Medea as Rachel Cusk. She’s a yummy-mummy writer whose trendily bearded husband has been caught cheating and she’s jolly fed up with him and he’s jolly fed up back. Transplanting this ancient tale to the present day does it irreparable damage. Jason was a prince with a kingdom to bequeath and Medea’s slaughter of their children destroyed his dynastic ambitions. Those concepts are meaningless today so what we’re left with is a fruity portrait of a fracturing marriage with some atmospheric lighting thrown in. Medea’s spiky, pugnacious language is a treat to listen to and Kate Fleetwood is brilliantly cast as the sexy vixen whose face breathes death. (She’d make a great 007.) But the play dodges the part that makes Medea Medea. The killings are presented in an oblique and confusing way perhaps because the audience is aware that posh Islington mums simply don’t murder their kids. That apart, this isn’t a bad piece of yuppie soap. But it’s hardly Medea.


Why Carly Fiorina (probably) can’t save the Republicans

Is Carly Fiorina the woman to see off Donald Trump – and Hillary Clinton?


The Republican party is showing all the attention span of a hyperactive toddler this primary season, moving from one shiny toy to the next. Donald Trump still dominates the nursery, like some giant plastic fire engine. But the pieces are starting to look careworn and the battery is going on the siren. The former neurosurgeon Ben Carson, now tied with Trump in some polls, is the teddy bear dragged around the playground a few times and now slumped in a corner. Fresh out of the box though is Carly Fiorina, the former chief executive of Hewlett Packard, gleaming amidst the gaggle of tired rivals.

At the most recent Republican debate, Fiorina wore what seemed from podium height upwards to be an electric-blue wetsuit. She was the only candidate who didn’t look like she’d been living in hotels and breakfasting on doughnuts for three months. She shot down Donald Trump for questioning whether anyone could vote for ‘that face’ and the audience went wild. She is a conservative dynamo plucked from Cecil Parkinson’s most fevered imaginings. And a friend of Benjamin Netanyahu to boot. When she was in corporate technology sales, she once turned up to a meeting with socks stuffed down her underwear to show the men she had what it took to close a deal. She tells the story proudly in her memoirs. For rich, hot-blooded Republicans, how much better can you get?

But Fiorina might not be so attractive to middle America. She speaks with the brusque confidence of the corporate CEO, often starting sentences with the phrase, ‘I am angered by…’ She is angered by a lot: hypocrisy, the tax code, environmentalists and liberals, especially liberals. She says brutal things with a tilt of the head and a bright, white smile, the kind that evil executives put on when they are firing everyone, moving jobs to China and then leaving with a giant golden parachute.

For a lapsed Episcopalian who rarely goes to church, Fiorina is unusually angry about abortion. In the most recent candidates’ debate, she challenged the absent Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama to watch a video about government-funded abortion clinics gathering foetal tissue for medical research: ‘Watch a fully formed foetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking, while someone says, “We have to keep it alive to harvest its brain.” ’ It’s the kind of gory stuff you hear on the anti-abortion, religious fringes, but not often in the mainstream.

She’s just as angry with anyone who fusses about climate change. She makes the usual conservative arguments that jobs matter more than the fate of animals, that the science on climate change is questionable and that there’s no point America putting its economy through the environmental wringer while China does nothing. But just when you’re thinking, ho-hum, another country-club Republican clinking the Scotch glass and grouching about tree-huggers, her anger takes her off piste. Wind turbines are an exciting technology, she said in a recent interview, but people need to know the truth: ‘Do we tell people the truth that it slaughters millions of birds every year? I mean, eagles, falcons, birds people that care about. Do we tell people that it’s slaughtering these birds?’

The greatest bird-slayer in America isn’t wind turbines. It’s windows. Followed by cats, high-tension wires, pesticides and then cars. Windmills aren’t butchering America’s birds of prey, spraying blood and feathers across the sky. Most of the birds who fly into them are ‘small passerines’, perching birds or songbirds. But the gore-crazed Fiorina wants us to think of environmental issues in the same way she wants us to think about reproductive rights, in the grisliest terms conceivable. Only the blood of eagles can sate her righteous anger.

But perhaps you have to use extreme language to get any attention in this primary circus. It works for Donald Trump, and Fiorina may be smart to use controversy to win media airtime. She also tells a mean personal story. Born to a solid middle-class family, started work as a secretary, rose to be head of the largest technology company in the world, survived breast cancer, buried a child. Tough. Resilient. Only in America.

Some of it is even true. Her father was an eminent judge who taught at Stanford Law School and served as deputy attorney general under President Nixon. She went to Stanford as an undergraduate, studied ancient Greek to read Aristotle and received a degree in medieval history and philosophy, which she jokes made her unemployable. She worked as a secretary in her university holidays and for six months in her early twenties. She then obtained an MBA and, at the age of 25, joined AT&T as a management trainee. Nineteen years later she was appointed chief executive of Hewlett-Packard, making her the most prominent woman in corporate America.

During her five-year stint at HP, she doubled the size of the company by acquiring a rival computer maker, Compaq, and was paid more than $100 million for her work. She managed through the collapse of the dotcom bubble, and HP emerged from the carnage in tolerable shape. But even today people still can’t agree whether she was any good. She was certainly ambitious, aggressive and brutal to anyone who opposed her. She was reported to have hung a painting of herself in the corporate headquarters, and issued noisemakers at corporate events to greet her when she arrived on stage. Her board fired her in 2005, citing problems with execution and a share price that had fallen 60 per cent under her tenure. She has not taken another job in business since.

In 2009 Fiorina was diagnosed with breast cancer; she underwent a double mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation and has since recovered. That same year her 35-year-old stepdaughter, Lori Ann, died. Fiorina married her second husband, Frank, when she was 31. Frank had two daughters by his first marriage, who were ten and 14 at the time. The girls were placed in the custody of their mother, Frank’s ex-wife. As an adult, Lori Ann suffered from bulimia and became addicted to prescription drugs. She married, divorced and died having distanced herself from her father and stepmother. This was the child Fiorina tells her audiences she buried.

She derives emotional texture from this story, but she has never said enough about her relationship with her stepdaughter for her audience to empathise at more than the most superficial level. Lori Ann’s mother has said that Fiorina’s version of events is incomplete. This sounds like emotional dynamite which could still blow up in Fiorina’s face.

Many Republicans are now fantasising about unleashing Fiorina on Hillary Clinton. The only thing better than beating Hillary would be to gazump her bid to become America’s first woman president with one of their own. But Fiorina’s anger and attitude so far seem like the socks bulging through her underwear. Diverting and provocative, but not the real thing.


Please let's have more musicals like this Kiss Me, Kate at Opera North

Kiss Me Kate

10 October 2015

Opera North’s new production of Cole Porter’s masterwork Kiss Me, Kate has been so widely and justly praised that I wonder whether there is much for a week-later reviewer to add. It’s not as if the work needs much exegesis or critical commentary, though it may be worth pointing out that what we hear in Leeds amounts to a new critical edition, in which the conductor, David Charles Abell, has played a major role. Musicals have been treated with as little respect as Italian operas were in the 19th century, with arias and whole scenes added or subtracted according to the taste and abilities of the performers, the management’s judgment of the initial reception, and the casualness with which manuscripts and orchestral parts have been handled. So Abell has an alarming tale to tell of chances lost and coincidences redeeming them, of tap-dance routines only recently discovered — all the makings, really, of the plot of a musical involving the disinterment of an earlier musical, with scholars fighting for grants and attending conferences in desirable places, etc.

Kiss Me, Kate already involves a musical-within-a-musical, in that the leading pair are played by a divorced couple. This gives rise to some confusion, at least if you’re not trained in opera plots, since it’s often hard to tell whether the conflicts we are witnessing are taking place between Petruchio and Kate, or between Fred and Lilli. I gave up minding fairly early on, after a study of Ethan Mordden’s excellent article in the programme book, and previously his superb account in his authoritative six-volume history of the American musical — why is this writer, encyclopaedic and fascinating both as musical commentator and brilliant novelist, so little known in the UK? The main thing is that this lengthy show, clocking in at slightly more than three hours, has enormous élan and a satisfyingly maintained sense of period. The only blot, which I had already more or less made allowance for before the show began, is American accents, their variability in the course of a single spoken sentence and between and among the performers. Quirijn de Lang, the Dutchman who plays Petruchio, is the worst offender, but in every other respect his performance is so endearing and attractive that it’s churlish to mind for more than a few minutes. These people have to look good, to act well, to sing in a half-operatic style, and to maintain unflagging energy, that being the great central quality of all musicals that matter. And they all do, there is no weak link. In Kiss Me, Kate there is no sentimentality, just the occasional hint of a sexy melody by Offenbach; it is as starkly unlike the ghastly gooey West Side Story as possible. Oh, and somehow Opera North manages to create an atmosphere of backstage grimness (not difficult) and onstage glamour and even sumptuousness, largely thanks to a huge reproduction of the great tapestry of The Lady and the Unicorn, and lavish period costumes. Please let’s have more dry-eyed productions of members of this art form.

Which brings me to Berg’s Wozzeck, and the question of how moist-eyed we should be at the end of what is almost certainly the greatest opera of the last century. In the past decade London has seen the perverse and refrigerating Royal Opera production; a strange hotchpotch of a semi-production at the Royal Festival Hall, superbly performed but violently gimmicky; and the marvellous ENO production, the most moving I have experienced.

The Zurich Opera has now done one of its one-night stands, a concert performance, sold mainly on the strength of Christian Gerhaher’s assumption of the title role, again at the Festival Hall. In the event, Gerhaher was unable to take part owing to illness and his place was taken by Leigh Melrose, a performer who everyone has seen because he is so versatile, but who pays the price and no one can think what they’ve seen him in. Well, now they can: he was magnificent (he was Wozzeck in the ENO production, but in English, of course), utterly involved in the role and articulating perfectly too. And he was surrounded by a strong cast, with Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke gleefully telling Wozzeck that he is a good man but lacking in virtue, and so forth, as if Berg had written the role for his particular variety of oily malice; and Lars Woldt a deranged doctor, reeling off his list of invented illnesses. The Drum Major of Brandon Jovanovich could easily play his role in a performance of Büchner’s play, and has a rich voice too. Gun-Brit Barkmin came on super-strong as Marie, less convincing in repentance than in erotic responsiveness — and crucially there was no child among the performers, only a chorus member (did Zurich Opera really need to bring a chorus of 46 with them?) to sing the last few words of the opera, so Marie’s lullaby and other scenes with the boy fell flat.

In fact, I’m not sure that Wozzeck can make its full impact in a concert performance, as so many operas clearly can. Not even when the orchestra is as fine as the Zurich one, and the conductor as probing and precise as Fabio Luisi. I have found him an uneven conductor, but here he was at his best, and he built that final elegy for Wozzeck to a stunning climax. That’s where the tears come in. We watch horrified as Wozzeck is driven to murder and suicide, but when the great D minor interlude gets under way it is as if we are to mourn the passing of a great hero. Many people have criticised Berg’s giving way to his superabundant store of feeling, and like them I think it was a mistake, but once one knows it, one wouldn’t be without. And that’s how we shall go on feeling.



10 October 2015

The death of Diesel

The Volkswagen scandal has brought into question the future of the diesel engine. A century ago its inventor, Rudolf Diesel, was himself the subject of scandal. On 29 September 1913 he disappeared from the steamship Dresden on its way from Antwerp to Harwich. He had retired to his cabin after dinner but had not changed into his bedclothes. His body was found off Norway ten days later. He was apparently on his way to discuss selling diesel engines to the Royal Navy for submarines, leading to suspicions that he had been murdered to prevent the technology falling into British hands. His financial situation, however, pointed to possible suicide. The Royal Navy went into the first world war with steam-powered submarines.

How the regions rate

George Osborne will let councils keep income from business rates. Total rateable value of business properties by region:



South-east £9bn
North-west £6bn
East £5.3bn
West Midlands £4.8bn
Yorks and Humberside £4.8bn
South-west £4.3bn
East Midlands £3.6bn
Wales £2.4bn
North-east £1.7bn

Source: IFS

Line of duty

A police officer was killed by a stolen vehicle in Liverpool. Is it becoming more dangerous to be a police officer?

Officers killed in violent acts
or in pursuit of criminals in Britain
1900s 25
1920s 12
1940s 17
1960s 22
1980s 50
2000s 20
2010s (so far) 6

Student politics

How do students vote? Most popular party at various universities:
Conservative Bath, Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Durham, Exeter, Imperial College London, LSE, Loughborough, Newcastle, Nottingham, Reading, Southampton, St Andrews
Labour Cambridge, Lancaster, Liverpool, King’s College London, University College London, Manchester, Oxford, Sheffield
Green Edinburgh
SNP Glasgow, Strathclyde

Mary Wakefield

Isis takes its British schoolgirl jihadis seriously. Why don’t we?

(Photo: Getty)

10 October 2015

When the first schoolgirls ran away to Isis I had some sympathy for them — at least, I could see how they’d been suckered in. The girls were young, daft, desperate for a cause. They’d nosed about online, and found the Twitter feeds of jihadi wives who sell Syria as a teenage paradise: all fast food, deathless love, martyrdom and shopping.

Because I felt for those first schoolgirls, I kept following their progress, checking for them online as they set up in Syria, married, and began to tweet themselves. But as I followed them on social media, my sympathy soon turned to disgust.

‘Happy #9/11’ wrote young Zahra Halane, one of the twins from Manchester who fled to Isis last year. ‘Happiest day of my life. Hopefully more to come. InSha Allah #Is.’

Her sister Salma cheered on the Charlie Hebdo massacre: ‘May Allah protect all the mujahideen in Franceeee!!! Shooting was maaaad!!’

Um Ayoub, 16, also from England, listed a few of her favourite things: ‘Vans, Nike, Chelsea FC, beheading Kafirs.’

It’s strange to feel one’s own heart harden; odd to notice that, without willing it, one’s thoughts have changed. All this dancing on the kafir’s grave had the same effect on me as I expect it had on others. The girls who once seemed victims became aggressors. They want to kill all unbelievers? Their former school pals? Me? Well, let them go to Syria, then. Let them stay there. Why waste money saving kids who want us dead?

It’s a satisfying position, and one I was enjoying right up until last week, when I read a report written by a think tank, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. ‘Till Martyrdom Do Us Part’, it was called, and it showed me what a terrible dunce I’d been. We must take these girls seriously, said the ISD, and we must stop them leaving — or else we’ll be making a historic, catastrophic mistake.

ISD say our girls are being lured not to Syria but to Libya now. A new cry has gone up on Twitter; the beckoning of British-born brides of Isis to their little sisters back home: ‘Come to Libya. Hijra is not only to Shaam [Syria]. Libya needs you too.’ ‘Life in Libya is mind bogglingly great.’ ‘Make your Visa and go to #IS in Libya. We need to raise more awareness.’ And all over London, daughters who seemed safe in their bedrooms start typing secretly: where should I fly to? How do I find you?

Isis have held territory in Libya for a while now, thanks to Mr Cameron and his idiot war. They run training camps on the coast near the Tunisian border (Jihadi John was a graduate) and have just retaken Sirte, Gaddafi’s old home town. But as ISD say, this sudden call for girls changes the game. Girls mean brides and brides mean babies, brainwashed from birth. Girls mean Isis are ready to secure another state, a new caliphate — and in terms of our security, if not human misery, Libya as a caliphate makes Syria look benign.

Libya is the dream for Isis, the real promised land. There’s oil to be sold and untold zillions to be extorted from migrants hoping to cross the Med, but more importantly, it’s the perfect launch pad for attacks on Europe. One Isis supporter, quoted by the Telegraph’s Ruth Sherlock, put it like this: ‘Libya has a long coast and looks upon the southern crusader states which can be reached with ease by even a rudimentary boat.’

And here’s where our schoolgirls might really make their mark. They’ll get in those rudimentary boats with the refugees, and with their children perhaps for added innocence. They’ll be rescued, make contact with comrades on the ground, then pick their moment to detonate off to paradise, taking the kafir with them. This is Isis’s plan, openly discussed online, to take terror to infidel Europe. The stowaway schoolgirl jihadis of today are tomorrow’s homing missiles.

But don’t Isis say a woman’s place is in the home? Aren’t Isis wives condemned to a life of cookery and beating up their Kurdish slaves? For the moment, yes. There is no lethal brigade of Isis lady assassins, much though the red-tops wish it so. But worshipping violence creates an appetite among the faithful. Beheadings are moreish, as England once knew well, and the longer a girl’s in the caliphate, the more bloodthirsty she’s likely to become. ISD have spotted, they say, a shift in the thinking of jihadi wives, an impatience among women to get to the hacking and torturing themselves. Umm Ubaydah, a western woman in her early twenties who acts as mentor to youngsters overseas, tweeted hopefully: ‘Maybe the time for us to participate is soon?’

Just think, say the ISD, of Chechnya’s female fighters, who first played just a sedate and supportive role in the Russo-Chechen wars. During the second war, after their husbands’ ‘martyrdom’, these homebodies became the ‘black widow’ suicide bombers.

And don’t imagine Isis don’t see the potential in their girls. In return for the release of the Japanese hostage Kenji Goto, they demanded ‘sister’ Sajida Mubarak al-Rishawi, a failed suicide bomber held in Amman. It wasn’t that they wanted her particularly, but demanding a sister sent a message to the rest worldwide: we value you — and especially if you’re prepared for martyrdom.

Each lonely schoolgirl, curious, religious, hormonal, is a godsend to Isis. That’s why they devote so many thousands of hours to converting them, to talking theology on the internet and making friends.

So the mystery of it all turns out to be not why the girls go so much as why we, Britain, do so little about it. No one in government is much concerned, says the ISD, no one thinks runaway teens a big deal. Our spooks and wonks have other concerns, which is why the ISD wrote their report. There’s some talk of educational videos and of learning from the campaigns that stopped kids smoking, but what’s really needed are mentors of our own, legions of them, to counteract Isis’s recruiters. We need to take these girls as seriously as Isis takes them or we really will live to regret it.

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