Tuesday 26 October, 2021

Quote of the Day

”I cannot bring myself to vote for a woman who has been voice-trained to speak to me as though my dog has just died.”

  • Keith Waterhouse, legendary Daily Mirror columnist, on Margaret Thatcher.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood | How Long, How Long Blues | Königsplatz, Munich | June 5, 2010


Terrible audio quality. But wonderfully atmospheric.

Long Read of the Day

One of the Most Egregious Ripoffs in the History of Science

An interesting essay by Kevin Berger on a new history of the race to decipher DNA which reveals the scheming that served to downplay the role of Rosalind Franklin in the discovery.

James Watson once said his road to the 1962 Nobel Prize began in Naples, Italy. At a conference in 1951, he met Maurice Wilkins, the biophysicist with whom he and Francis Crick shared the Nobel for discovering the double-helix structure of DNA. Meeting Wilkins was when he “first realized that DNA might be soluble,” Watson said. “So my life was changed.”

That’s a nice anecdote for the science textbooks. But there’s “a tawdry first act to this operetta,” writes Howard Markel in his new book…

Read on.

Jack Shafer on Trump’s new media ‘business’

Trump’s new media start-up will soon teach him the public views him more as a Glenn Beck than it does an Oprah Winfrey. Beck, who proved he could hold millions of viewers captive with just palaver and a chalkboard on both CNN and Fox News a decade ago, started his own media company in 2011. He hasn’t exactly failed. He still broadcasts. But his ambitions outran his appeal, requiring steady layoffs and entrenchment. America still liked Beck some, but not enough to build a whole network around. Even for people who liked him, Beck was like Tabasco. Stimulating, perhaps in small doses, but gag-producing by the swig. Sort of like Trump. Winfrey, on the other hand, never played to a single political niche. She appealed to the widest segments of the population with her kindness and her chameleon-esque quality of reflecting back at her audience their best qualities. When it came time for her to establish her eponymous network, she had no trouble sustaining it because she’s a safe and reassuring performer and not the scare-merchant Beck plays on TV. People can and have built whole worlds around Winfrey, and she’s a billionaire now thanks to those talents.

Americans still like Trump some. After all, he got 74 million votes. But does America like Trump enough to embrace a whole new media universe based on him, or is he more like Beck — best when taken in smaller portions as part of a larger meal? Will enough people go through the motions of signing up for a new social media app just to taste Trump’s insights? His blog’s failure to capture scant attention tells you two things: The Trump audience gets its minimum daily requirements of Trump coverage from the regular media, and nothing he created on his blog started a queue for more of the same, let alone a stampede. Trump succeeded on Twitter in part because he was unique, but mostly because Twitter already had convened an audience for him to entertain. There’s no evidence he can convene such an audience all by himself.


It’s those 74 million votes that worry me.

The search for ‘third places’

Interesting blog post by Rob Miller on how the post-pandemic (assuming we ever get there) debate about the relative merits of WFH and going to the office might be resolved.

And so the terms of the debate have largely been set: remote work is good for some things, the office is good for others, and the task that we have is to figure out just how much time we want to spend in each situation and how flexible we want to be about the split. But in concentrating just on our homes and our offices, and the balance between the two, are we neglecting another sort of space?

The sociologist Ray Oldenburg has long written of “third places”: physical spaces that are neither home nor work, but that nevertheless fulfil vital social roles. Writing in the 1980s, Oldenburg identified places like pubs, coffee shops, civic centres, and churches as important third places. If offices – our “second places” – are eroding in importance, might third places increase in importance in their stead? And if so, what might the modern third places be?

I know two people who are very successful in their fields who apparently cannot work at home. One is a (justly) celebrated writer, who can only write in cafes; the other is a distinguished scholar who writes best in pubs!

As for me, I’ve always preferred writing at home while enjoying meeting with colleagues in person (especially over lunch or even breakfast). I’ve never been able to write in an office, even a comfortable, book-lined one.

My commonplace booklet

Eh? (See here)

A question on Quentin’s blog yesterday morning

If a fairy appeared and offered to grant you a wish which, for the relief of humankind’s frustration, would eliminate just one of the following from the human experience, which would you choose?

Sticky labels that don’t peel off cleanly, leaving adhesive behind.

Packaging that requires a knife or scissors to open.

Zips that get caught on things or jam at inconvenient times.

Pens that run out halfway through the sentence.

Remember, you can only choose one. Answers in the comments, please, or on a postcard addressed to Santa Claus.

I’m a sticky label guy.

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Gordon Brown waits for Birnam Wood

Nice Guardian piece by Jonathan Freedland.

As for personal ambition, the virus that brought down Macbeth, those looking kindly on Brown said he was cured of it. "I'm past caring," he mused privately on Friday, when asked about his own position. They point to his statement accepting that Clegg talk to Cameron first, all statesmanlike and above the fray, as if he had made the emotional shift from combatant to referee.

Others see the weekend’s events rather differently. The less charitable version pictures Brown in the No 10 bunker, scheming to cling on. It cites the late-night calls to Clegg – although those who heard them insist they were calm and businesslike – imagining a fevered Brown stabbing jotting pads with his thick pen, totting up the assorted minor parties to see if he could somehow reach the magic number that spelled power.

That the PM saw Clegg again today, in a clandestine meeting at the Foreign Office, confirmed Brown was far from ready to surrender. Instead, this man of uncanny resilience was clearly planning one more resurrection.

Which version is true? Is Brown now the becalmed statesman, planning his exit, or the bloodied survivor, determined to fight on? The likelihood is that, when it comes to Brown – the most psychologically complex figure to inhabit Downing Street since Winston Churchill – the answer is both.

It ain’t over till the fat lady sings.

Change You Can Bereave In

Nice, acerbic NYT OpEd piece by A.A. Gill.

These are not three of the most engaging or noble statesmen the nation has produced. Mr. Cameron, the Tory, is personable — your mother would like him. A fresh-faced character who tries, and fails, with emotionally winning oratory. He always sounds like the coxswain urging the rowing team to pull together and straighten their straw boaters.

We look at Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat, and try in vain to imagine him going toe-to-toe with leaders like Silvio Berlusconi of Italy, Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel or even the Queen of Tonga. In any other decade, the best he could have hoped for would have been a post as a junior minister in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, an ambassador’s bag-carrier. He speaks five languages but can’t say boo in any of them. His children all have Spanish names.

Gordon Brown is a character from a tragic opera, twisted by ambition and a Presbyterian sense of fateful destiny. He has waited 13 years, mostly in Tony Blair’s shadow, for this poisoned chalice and has a pessimist’s luck. He wrestles with an Old Testament temper, and it’s said that he has no friends. Certainly, none of them have come out to contradict this. Last week he was recorded by an open microphone petulantly calling a respectable working-class woman he had just spoken to in the street a “bigot.” Off the record, his advisers say they are quite relieved — it’s usually so much worse.

Gutter press-ups

Andrew Rawnsley has some stirring reactions to his treatment by the Friends of Gordo.

[One of] the paradoxes of finding myself nose to nose with Gordon Brown and his attack machine. The revelations about his behaviour in The End of the Party have been denounced by the prime minister as lies and attacked by his anonymous mouthpieces as “malicious falsehoods” along with a fruity variety of other desperate denials. The more they snarled, the more messages and calls I received from senior Labour figures wanting to express their solidarity and telling me to stand firm. Some offered very useful tips about how to cope in a cage fight with No 10.

“Gutter journalism” was the abuse which spat from the mouth of John Prescott, a man whose infidelities include having sex with a junior civil servant in a hotel room while his long-suffering and oblivious wife, Pauline, waited downstairs to have dinner with the treacherous and hypocritical toad. Her recent memoir describes how he slunk back to their home in Hull to confess to his adultery before it became public. His security staff preceded him into the house to dump a bag of his dirty smalls for Pauline to wash. I know which of us is better acquainted with the gutter.

That’s the stuff!

Welcome to dreamland

I watched Gordon Brown’s ghastly Conference speech and thought that Simon Hoggart got it right.

But there was a dreamlike quality to the whole speech. The gist of it was, that after nearly 13 years, Labour wants a crack at government. Having constructed a short, sanitised version of a past that did happen, he launched into a future that probably never will: whimpering bankers flee from the wrath of the British people, grateful old folk get free care at home, sinister-sounding “action squads” will sort out troublemakers on problem estates, no more hereditary peers, a plebiscite on PR, green jobs for green people, as he almost said, and a weird Victorian notion of an institution for fallen women – a barracks for single teenage mothers. There will be “family intervention projects” for the most “chaotic” families. “Blimey, it’s the fip-man at the door. Put that spliff out and get the dog off the baby’s tea.”

And asbos will be strictly enforced, no doubt by the same action squads that will stop binge drinking and bankers’ bonuses. But as the late Linda Smith said: “Don’t knock asbos – for some of these kids it’s the only qualification they’ve got.”

The whole fantasy, that Labour has another five years in office to do all the things it never quite got round to in the last 13, pleased the conference mightily.

They’re going to dream massive buy-two-get-one-free dreams and reach deep inside themselves like the monster from Alien. They loved it.

As regular readers know, I’ve thought for a long time that the reason Tony Blair hung on for so long was that he knew Brown would be a disaster. In that, at least, he was dead right.

Plodding on

Incredible as it may seem. Gordon Brown (well, his office) is on Twitter. His tweets are exactly in character, that is to say, cringe-making. Here’s the latest one, for example:

PM: Many congratulations to Fabio Capello & England team for qualifying for the 2010 World Cup Finals with an emphatic win against Croatia.

It’s the kind of thing he would write, too. This, after all, is the guy who could take time to congratulate the England cricketers on winning the ashes while being unable to comment on the decision to release the Lockerbie bomber.

So where is the alternative government?

Thoughtful Observer column by will Hutton.

The essence of democracy is alternative governments. After 13 years of New Labour, the country is ready for change. But the question it will and must ask is whether David Cameron’s Conservatives are the answer to Britain's problems. To jump from the frying pan into the fire would be stupid. Brown, like the tortured heroes of Shakespearean tragedies, is complex: he has strengths that partly compensate for his all too obvious flaws. One strength is that he is assembling an array of policies that are right. This, along with his astonishing tenacity, makes it so hard for his party to junk him. And here's the rub. The country may find it has the same difficulty.

One of the Conservative party’s problems is that it does not have the intellectual, political and philosophical wind at its back and it has no surefooted sense of what it should do as the economic and social crisis unfolds. Thus Boris Johnson’s London mayoralty in which little positive has been done. As somebody close to him acknowledged admiringly to me, Boris is the classic Tory. It is as important to occupy power, so denying its use to others, as to do anything constructive with it. That may excite Tory camp followers; others may feel that the point of power is to use it.

The size of the prospective budget deficit has given the Tory leadership a new confidence. The Conservatives’ task is to do what comes naturally: to take an axe to public spending and the regulatory arms of government like OfCom or the Financial Services Authority that displease the Tories’ natural constituencies, whether Rupert Murdoch or a stage army of City traders. Yet under Adair Turner, the FSA has begun to get serious about insider trading, investment banker bonuses and the structure of banks’ business models. Just as it gets its act together, it is to be disbanded and its powers handed to what City minister Paul Myners calls the “bookish” Bank of England, whose record of both spotting asset price bubbles and handling bank crises is dire. Thinking City people concerned about the dominance of speculative finance are shaking their heads in disbelief. Equally, Sky’s competitors and many consumers are no less dismayed that a champion of competition is to be abolished.

Sugaring the pill(ock)

One of the strangest things about Gordon Brown is the gulf between his fantasies about having a ‘vision’ and his pathetic appetite for gimmicks. The latest is his appointment of ‘Sir’ Alan Sugar as the government’s ‘Enterprise Czar’. Apart from the ludicrousness of thinking that this one-dimensional celebrity might be able to address anything as complex as industrial policymaking, there is the small matter of the way his acceptance of a post on Brown’s sinking ship compromises the independence of the BBC. So it’s good to see that the Tories are taking up the case.

The Conservatives today launched a concerted attempt to scupper the appointment.

Jeremy Hunt, Shadow Culture, Media and Sport Secretary, said: “Presenting a programme for the BBC and working for the Government on the same issue is totally incompatible with the BBC’s rules on political independence and impartiality. Sir Alan Sugar needs to make a choice between his role in The Apprentice and his role as the Government’s business tsar.

“I have written to Sir Michael Lyons and asked him as a matter of urgency to explain who at the BBC gave guidance to Sir Alan and whether he had informed them that he would be a Labour peer.”

John Whittingdale, chair of the Culture Select committee of MPs, said: “In my view it is not possible for him to continue to present The Apprentice at the same time as he is so closely identified with the Government.

“I had assumed that by accepting the role as Enterprise Czar he would stand down from his role in The Apprentice.

“His show is all about business and enterprise. He will be making recommendations on policy to Government. He is already a political figure – he has made no secret of his admiration for Gordon Brown.

“Either he is an influential figure in Government or this is just window dressing.”

If the BBC Trust dodges this, then some of us licence-fee payers might have to take some online action involving Sir Michael Lyons’s email inbox. After all, according to the Charter, the purpose of the BBC Trust is

“to work on behalf of licence fee payers, ensuring the BBC provides high quality output and good value for all UK citizens, and it protects the independence of the BBC”.

I haven’t yet been able to locate the Chairman’s personal email address, but for starters there’s always trust.enquiries@bbc.co.uk

UPDATE: The Observer reports that:

Government insiders say ministers have been wrangling about who should take responsibility for the feisty businessman and star of The Apprentice. “No one wants to have him,” said one source.

Sugar’s appointment was announced with great fanfare by the prime minister in his cabinet reshuffle, but a spokeswoman from Lord Mandelson’s Department for Business, Innovation and Skills confirmed that he would have no staff and no office there.

“We want him to go out and meet small businesses and report what he’s seeing. He’s not in the government, he’s just an adviser,” she said.

MPs are sheep; political journalists are hyenas

Diane Abbott MP said something interesting on the radio the other day, namely that the atmosphere among her fellow-MPs was “hysterical”. And the cause of the hysteria? Why the expenses scandal (mainly) plus fear of losing their seats. In the circumstances, Abbott worried about her colleagues’ ability to make any rational decisions about Gordon Brown’s future. She might be right.

But what would such a ‘rational’ strategy be like? Answer: it would involve calming down and letting Brown survive subject to conditions about sorting out the expenses shambles and a modicum of attainable constitutional reform (like fixed-term Parliaments, reductions in the volume of legislation, relaxation of the Party whip system and giving MPs the right to choose membership and chairmanship of Select Committees).

Switching leaders now — however emotionally satisfying it might be — would be suicidal, not just for Labour MPs but also for the country. It would provoke an emergency General Election which, if held at the moment, would produce crazy results. In fact, if MPs wanted to ensure a few Westminster seats for the BNP to add to the two European Parliament seats they picked up last night, then provoking an election is the best way to go about it. What should be in everybody’s minds now is what happened in Holland after the murder of Pim Fortuyn — when the Dutch elected a parliament of fruitcakes and rendered their country virtually ungovernable for several years.

As for political journalists… well their orgasmic delight at being able to cover such a juicy story is becoming nauseating. They really are like hyenas closing in on a wounded beast. And apart from anything else, most of them are adding little if any value to the story. And yet BBC TV (and no doubt ITV and Sky too) persist in wasting energy, fuel, time and money ferrying their big name reporters to Downing Street instead of sticking them in a studio or keeping them in Westminster where they can get on with real investigation and reporting.

It’s really irritating, for example, to see the ludicrous way the Beeb is mis-using its Political Editor, Nick Robinson. He’s very useful as a summarising, contextualising commentator after others have done the leg-work. But the most value-adding contribution he’s made over the last few frantic days was a piece to camera recorded at his desk. Dragging him to Downing Street to say exactly the same thing would have been daft. But that’s what they do most of the time.