Watching Benedict Cumberbatch talking about the lack of opportunities for black British actors on the American chat show Tavis Smiley last week makes for painful viewing. He tries to think of a suitable alternative to the word “black”, hits on one (“coloured”), hesitates for a second, then blurts it out and carries on talking as quickly as he can, hoping no one will notice in case he’s made a mistake. (To read more, click here.)
The Sun was being widely credited last night with having pulled off a brilliant bit of trolling, first appearing to kill off Page 3, then resuscitating it a week later. If the paper’s intention was to make its feminist critics look ridiculous, it succeeded. The triumphalist reaction of the anti-Page 3 campaigners, patting themselves on the back for having achieved a tremendous victory, now looks very silly indeed. A good example is this tweet by the Labour Party, quoting its glorious deputy leader:
But was that the Sun’s intention? I’m not so sure. One of the reasons the Sun hasn’t dropped Page 3 before now is the worry that it would lose some readers to the Daily Star as a result. Consequently, if it was thinking seriously about doing it, it would probably test the water first by dropping it for a few days and examining the impact on sales. It could well be that the reason Page 3 is back is because there was a sharp drop in its circulation. (To read more, click here.)
"I for one would be sorry to see them go," wrote George Orwell. "They are a sort of saturnalia, a harmless rebellion against virtue." He was writing about the seaside postcards of Donald McGill in 1941, but his defence of them and their "enthusiastic indecency" could equally well apply to Page 3.
Orwell's argument was that McGill's caricatures of women, "with breasts or buttocks grossly over-emphasized", gave expression to "the Sancho Panza view of life". There's a fat little squire in all of us, he thought, although few of us are brave enough to admit it. "He is the unofficial self, the voice of the belly protesting against the soul," he wrote. "His tastes lie towards safety, soft beds, no work, pots of beer and women with 'voluptuous' figures." (To read more, click here.)
John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York, has never been shy about courting publicity. He frequently churns out controversial opinion pieces for the red-tops and, just in case they don’t receive enough attention, he’s in the habit of re-issuing them as “press releases”. (You can see a list of the most recent here. He has opinions on almost everything, from same-sex marriage (against) to William and Kate’s decision to live together before their wedding (in favour). But with his latest outburst about free schools, the tabloid bishop has jumped the shark.
Free schools, according to Sentamu, only benefit the well off and divert millions of pounds from more deserving neighbouring state schools. They only appeal to “people with means”, he said, and dismissed the concept of school choice as a waste of resources.
"What should have happened is that the Government should have invested all that money in raising the level of achievement in schools that are less achieving, not by putting in these so-called competing places," he said. “If I am being very blunt I think it was a sort of failed attempt to create grammars.”
Needless to say, he’s wrong on every count. (To read more, click here.)
I envy William Hague. Not the £2.5 million country house he’s just bought in Wales, although that would be nice. Rather, the fact that he plans to spend his retirement writing books.
These days, you need a substantial private income – or a public sector pension – to be a full-time writer. Last year, a survey of 2,500 professional authors found that their median income in 2013 was £11,000. That’s a drop of 29 per cent since 2005 and significantly below the minimum salary required to achieve a decent standard of living. (To read more, click here.)
David Sedaris is my new hero. Not because he’s such a funny writer, but because he’s obsessed with litter. He told a group of MPs last week that he spends up to five hours a day picking up fast food containers and fag ends around his home in Pulborough, West Sussex. Thanks to his unstinting labours, he’s become a local hero and has had a rubbish lorry named after him.
I’ve some way to go before I qualify for such an honour, but I do my part. For instance, on Monday I spent an hour clearing the litter from the flowerbed outside the West London Free School in Hammersmith. This was rubbish left by passers-by, not the pupils. Sedaris said the thing that infuriates him the most are crisp packets tied into a knot and stuffed into soft drink cans, but I can trump that. Among the detritus I came across on Monday was a fresh pile of human excrement. All I can say is, I’m glad the individual in question wasn’t squatting in the flowerbed when we had our school open day last October. (To read more, click here.)
I sympathise with the people of Birmingham. It must be galling to discover that so little is known about your hometown in America that a “terrorism expert” can appear on national television and describe it as a “totally Muslim” city where “non-Muslims simply don't go”. That claim was made last week on Fox News by Steve Emerson, founder of The Investigative Project on Terrorism.
But Brummies can take some comfort from the fact that at least Emerson had heard of their city and knew it was in England. My wife, who lived in New York for a year in her twenties, got a blank look when she told the man running the boxing class at her gym that she was from London. “Is that in Australia?” he asked. (To read more, click here.)
When I first heard the story of Alan Turing in my late teens I made what must be quite a common mistake. I concluded that his conviction in 1952 for committing a homosexual act was indefensible in light of his immense contribution to the war effort. The fact that he was forced to undergo a course of hormonal "therapy" which led to his suicide two years later underlined just how badly he was treated. The British authorities should have been erecting statues to him, not hounding him to his death because he was attracted to other men.
The reason this was a "mistake" is because I'd made a connection between Turing's war record and the injustice of persecuting him for being homosexual, when it would have been equally wrong if he'd been a conscientious objector. People's right to have sex with whomever they choose, provided they've reached the age of consent, isn't contingent on their having done something heroic. By the same token, it;s not a valid argument to say that criminalising homosexual acts is wrong because some homosexuals contribute an enormous amount to our national life. Let's call all variations of this mistake the Turing Fallacy.
The Imitation Game – the new British film about Turing starring Benedict Cumberbatch – commits this fallacy, but not in the way you'd expect. (To read more, click here.)
For the second year running, Tatler has published a guide to Britain’s best state schools. Among those institutions singled out for praise is Grey Coat Hospital, the Church of England secondary school in Westminster where Michael Gove sends his daughter and where the Prime Minister is likely to send his eldest child in September.
“Put your wallet away,” concludes the glossy magazine. “Sometimes, the right choice isn’t the most expensive one.”
Predictably enough, the guide isn’t without its critics. For one thing, it only includes 34 schools – 12 primaries and 22 secondaries. Are these really the “best” state schools in the country? There are more than 20,000 in England alone and Tatler makes no pretence of visiting every one. Without doubt, some of the schools Tatler has left out are more deserving of a place in the top 34 than those it has included. This is a survey based on anecdotal evidence provided by friends of the magazine’s staff, not a thorough scientific analysis.
Then there are those who say the guide undermines the inclusive ethos that all state schools should embrace. (To read more, click here.)
This time last year, I wrote an article saying my main project in 2014 would be to unite the right. That is, I would start a political movement that would bring together Conservative and UKIP activists in a tactical voting alliance. We would select a few dozen battleground constituencies and campaign for whichever candidate was best placed to win in each seat, whether UKIP or Tory. The name for this movement was to be ‘Country Before Party’.
The initial response was encouraging. Hundreds of people emailed me offering their support, including MEPs, members of the House of Lords, ex-members of Parliament, and so on. I set up a website, assembled a steering committee and started drafting detailed plans. I felt like I was really on to something.
The most common reaction among seasoned political observers was to assume I was proposing a full-blown electoral pact and then pour cold water on the idea. But that was missing the point. I was proposing an informal pact between the parties’ supporters, not a formal pact between their leaders. I was adamant that my idea didn’t depend on the blessing of David Cameron and Nigel Farage. It could still fly even in the face of their opposition.
But I was secretly hoping that, behind closed doors, the party panjandrums would be more sympathetic. (To read more, click here.)