I had thought my days of being approached by reality show producers, hoping to put together a cast of D-list celebrities, were behind me. But apparently not. A couple of weeks ago I was contacted by the makers of The Jump, a Channel 4 programme in which assorted 'personalities' try their hands at various Alpine sports, including downhill slalom, bobsleigh racing and ski-jumping. Never heard of it, but it sounded like fun so I told my agent to set up a meeting.
I thought the reason I must be back on the reality show radar is because I've published a book this year. Then, when I watched the first episode of I'm A Celebrity – Get Me Out of Here, I realised what was going on. I've now reached the age where I'm eligible for the role of 'token old guy', a reality show staple. Last year, that part on I'm A Celeb was played by the fashion designer David Emanuel and this year the BBC broadcaster Michael Buerk has drawn the short straw.
It's not an easy role to play. You're allowed to make the occasional curmudgeonly remark, but in general it's less 'grumpy old man' than 'wise old bird'. When patronised by some half-witted ex-boy band member, you're expected to laugh self-deprecatingly, only to take them under your wing when they burst in 'glamorous granny', another reality show fixture. If you so much as glance at the ex-glamour model – which is difficult to avoid, because she's usually wandering around in 'jungle bikini' made of twigs and leaves – you are immediately branded a 'dirty old man'. Any expression of sexual desire at all has to be of the music hall, Allo Allo variety. God forbid that you might be a real-life human being instead of a 'national treasure'. (To read more, click here.)
Feature writers aren't often acclaimed for their courage, but Neil Lyndon deserves a bronze plaque in St Bride's. Twenty-two years ago, he wrote a book called No More Sex War in which he questioned some of the assumptions underlying the modern feminist movement. He pointed out that many of the advances made by women over the past 200 years have been made with the help of men and suggested that men should be regarded as allies in the war against injustice, not defenders of the status quo.
Perfectly reasonable, you might think. Not a misogynistic tract, but a progressive critique of radical feminist ideology. Yet that wasn't the way it was received. Almost without exception, the book was reviewed as if it was a full-blown assault on women's rights. It's not an exaggeration to say that Neil Lyndon was hounded from polite society. His career nosedived and he was declared bankrupt. The feminist publisher Carmen Callil speculated that the reason Lyndon was concerned about the plight of men was because he had a small penis.
Coincidentally, it was around 22 years ago that the Taleban first emerged as a religious and political force in Afghanistan, but as far as I'm aware no prominent feminists took exception to them. Think about that for a moment. Because a Sunday Times journalist had the temerity to point out that men suffered from discrimination, too – even though he warmly embraced the doctrine of sexual equality – he was condemned by virtually every left-wing woman in the country. But when faced with a group of religious zealots that raped, tortured and murdered women who dared to depart from their medieval code of conduct, none of them batted an eyelid. The equivalent, I suppose, would be a group of British Jews in 1938 that campaigned to ban TS Eliot's poetry on the grounds that it was anti-Semitic, but ignored the rise of the Nazi Party. (To read more, click here.)
Key Message: Miliband is Labour's best hope of winning election
According to the BBC, the Labour leader is currently in the throes of a full-blown leadership crisis. At least two Labour MPs have told the Chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party that he must stand down, with more expected to follow. If this rebellion gathers momentum, Miliband could be gone by Monday.
It is absolutely imperative that you do everything in your power to save the Labour leader over the next 48 hours. Whether speaking on or off the record, you must give the impression that Miliband is a feared and respected opponent who is Labour's best hope of winning the next election. If possible, try and seem pleased rather than depressed at the prospect of someone else taking over. Don't overdo it, obviously, or the Parliamentary Labour Party will smell a rat. We suggest prefacing your remarks with phrases such as "I know it's hard to believe" and "in all candour". If necessary, you can refer to "internal polling" which – you can say – shows that Miliband isn't as much of an electoral liability as the recent YouGov poll for the Sunday Time suggests. (To read more, click here.)
I participated in a lively discussion about character education at Policy Exchange earlier this week. For those of you who don’t follow every twist of the education debate, the idea that “character” should be taught in schools has gained a lot of traction over the past five years. Interestingly, support for this proposal doesn’t divide along part lines. Both Tristram Hunt and Nicky Morgan are advocates of character education.
By “character”, the supporters of this idea have various desirable traits in mind, such as tenacity, reliance and self-control. There’s plenty of evidence that a child’s possession of these qualities is a strong predictor of later success. To give just one example, children who perform well in the marshmallow test, whereby they are given a choice between eating one now or two later, do better at school, are more likely to go to university and less likely to go to prison. According to believers in “character education”, it follows that we should teach children qualities like self-control, particularly in primary school.
I’m a detractor, although not completely dogmatic about it. I have no objection to teaching character outside the classroom – getting children to do the Duke of Edinburgh Award, for instance. But I draw the line at devoting valuable curriculum time to it. Why? Because character traits are inherited, not taught. (To read more, click here.)
I’m writing this from Portugal, where I’m staying with my old friend Sean Langan. His family has owned a farm in the Algarve for several generations and I first came to stay with them when I was 18. I continued to spend every summer here for the next five years and, together, they represent some of the happiest periods of my life. This is the first time I’ve returned in a quarter of a century.
Wherever I go, the memories come flooding back. There’s the veranda where I sat with a bucket of warm water and a Bic disposable razor, shaving off the hairs that had appeared on my chest. There’s the car park where Sean and I raced around in our Mini Mokes, practising our handbrake turns. There’s the cave that I swam out to with Mandy, a freckle-cheeked brunette. We made out on a tiny stretch of sand, unseen by our friends on the beach.
I’d like to be able to say that I fell in love for the first time during this period, but the truth is my heart had already been broken by the time I arrived in Portugal. Those summers were an opportunity to rebuild my confidence – a kind of sexual therapy. There was one two-week period in particular in which I enjoyed a degree of success that I’d never experienced before. By the time I left, I felt as if I’d finally become a man. (To read more, click here.)
I’m often asked by other free school proposers what lessons I’ve learnt over the past five years. Any pearls of wisdom I can pass on so they don’t make the same mistakes?
My standard response is to reel off a checklist of things I would have done differently if I’d known then what I know now. To take just one example, we probably wouldn’t have introduced a “no packed lunch” rule if we’d known that we’d have to provide all our 4-7-year-olds with free school meals. But the biggest lesson is one I daren’t share, which is that trying to give children a better education than the neighbouring local authority schools, with no additional funding, is really, really difficult.
When I embarked on this crusade, I thought I’d just be able to sweep in, create a blueprint based on a traditional model, and sweep out again. Opposition from the teaching unions, left-wing activists and the local authority? No problem – just bulldoze straight through it. Keeping all the different stakeholders onside? A simple matter of being a good communicator. Dealing with contractors, planning consultants, environmental health officers, technical advisors and party-wall surveyors? To be honest, I wasn’t aware I’d have to do any of that, but if someone had pointed it out I would have taken it in my stride. I assumed that my goodness of heart and will of iron would be enough to overcome any obstacles. (To read more, click here.)
I’m ashamed to say it took me a while to watch an episode of The Walking Dead, the fifth season of which has just begun. I was put off by the zombies. Too sophomoric, as far as I was concerned, only one notch above vampires. I’d stick with more grown up fare, like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad.
I changed my mind after seeing The Mist, a forgotten horror film directed by Frank Darabont, the developer of The Walking Dead. I’m not a fan of The Shawshank Redemption, Darabont’s most famous film – all that heavy-handed Christian symbolism – but The Mist is a solid B-movie. It’s about a group of ordinary townsfolk trapped in a supermarket by giant, squid-like monsters. These monsters are no less silly than zombies, but the film isn’t about them. It’s about the human beings they are trying to kill and the lengths those people are prepared to go to in order to survive. It explores the age-old question of whether our sense of right and wrong is integral to who we are or just a luxury that we’re happy to dispense with in the face of adversity. (To read more, click here.)
An interesting article appeared yesterday by Sunder Katwala, director of British Future, in which he speculates about why Douglas Carswell defected to Ukip. You can read it here. Katwala's thesis is that Carswell is on a mission to "modernise" Ukip. Why? Because what Carswell really cares about is winning an in/out EU referendum and he recognises that, in its present state, Ukip is hurting the Eurosceptic cause. Here's the key paragraph in Katwala's article: "As Ukip won the European Elections… it became clear that the rise and rise of Ukip has done nothing to significantly boost support for Britain leaving the European Union. If anything, the opposite is true. As Ukip’s profile and poll rating has risen, it has been associated with rising support for staying in the EU."
It's one of the paradoxes of contemporary British politics that the more support Ukip attracts, the more solidified pro-EU opinion becomes. Katwala's thinks this is because gays, women and ethnic minorities are turned off by Ukip. Because of the party's position on gay marriage, sexual equality and immigration, they think of Ukip as a backward, antediluvian force that's fundamentally opposed to their interests. Consequently, if Ukip is in favour of leaving the EU, they automatically feel sympathetic to the pro-EU case.(To read more, click here.)
I’ve been thinking about the Conservative Party’s proposal for a Bill of Rights and am finding it difficult to make up my mind. On the one hand, I like the idea of making the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom the ultimate guarantor of our human rights rather than the European Court. British judges are surely more reliable guardians of liberty than the jurists in Strasbourg. But on the other, I’m nervous about the rights enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights becoming less sacrosanct, particularly Article 10 which deals with freedom of expression. I’ll explain what I mean by that a little bit further down.
Let’s start with a straw man. The fact that David Cameron has said he would like to repeal Labour’s Human Rights Act doesn’t mean he’s seeking to disapply the European Convention. On the contrary, his proposal is to embody the Convention in a British Bill of Rights. Nor is he arguing that the European Court should be completely disregarded. Rather, if the judges in Strasbourg rule that a particular British law is incompatible with the Convention that would be treated as advisory rather than binding under the new proposal. Whether to amend or repeal the law in question would be a matter for Parliament.
The news this morning that the Conservatives intend to hold an open primary in Rochester and Strood shows how serious the party is about winning the by election triggered by Mark Reckless's resignation. Primaries are expensive to organise - particularly an open primary in which any registered voter in the constituency can participate - but the Prime Minister and his advisors believe that selecting a "people's candidate" will be a good way of countering Ukip's populist rhetoric and is their best hope of victory.
Most of the Tory MPs I spoke to at conference said the Rochester by-election is a perfect opportunity to stop Ukip in its tracks. They are resigned to losing to Douglas Carswell in Clacton on October 9, but believe that if the party can win in Rochester that would discourage any other Conservative MPs from defecting. Nigel Farage admitted as much in the Independent: "I think that anyone considering making the leap will wait for the results of the by-elections before they decide to do so," he wrote.
There are a number of reasons to think Reckless will lose. For one thing, he's no Douglas Carswell. Carswell has been Clacton's MP since 2005 and has built up a large personal following in the constituency thanks to his energetic and innovative campaigning. Reckless, by contrast, has only represented Rochester since 2010. (To read more, click here.)