I received a phone call the other day I wasn’t expecting. It was a BBC producer calling about a Radio 4 series called ‘Great Lives’ presented by Mathew Paris. Each week, a distinguished guest is asked to nominate someone they believe is truly deserving of the title ‘Great Life’ and then they come on the radio to discuss that person, along with an “expert”.
I got rather excited as she was explaining this. Had someone really nominated me? When she told me the name of the guest I was even more thrilled – Brian Eno, the founder of Roxy Music.
“The rock legend?” I said. “That’s awfully flattering.”
“Yes, isn’t it?” she replied. “And we were wondering if you’d like to be our studio ‘expert’?”
“Yes, delighted, obviously. [Pause.] But, er, hang on, wouldn’t that be a bit odd?”
“No, not at all. You are [itals] his son [itals], after all.”
The penny dropped. Brian Eno hadn’t nominated me. He’d nominated my dad. (To read more, click here.)
I was surprised to learn that a group of German scientists have “proved” that a night out with the lads is actually good for men’s psychological health. Apparently, the stress levels of Barbary apes go into the red zone when they’re with their partners or family members, but fall dramatically when they’re in a group of other males.
All I can say is, alcohol must feature less prominently in the Atlas Mountains than it does in London or New York, which is where I’ve experienced my most memorable nights out. For instance, there was the evening I spent with Nigel Farage, James Delingpole and Paul Staines, the evil genius behind the Guido Fawkes website. At around 10pm I made the mistake of challenging the UKIP leader to a drinking competition and after the fifth shot of Tequila everything is a bit of a blur. The night ended when we were in a cab, on our way to Annabelle’s. My wife called on my mobile, ordered me to hand the phone to the driver and then barked an address into his ear. The others got out and I woke up at dawn on the floor of my office. (To read more, click here.)
Earlier this week, the law changed to enable men to share the leave that women are currently entitled to after the birth of a child. From 5 April next year, men can take up to 50 weeks of paternity leave, while their partners can go straight back to work.
The prospect of shared parental leave hasn’t gone down well with British men, according to a survey in the Daily Mail. Seventy-five per cent of men are opposed to the new law, rising to 80 per cent for the over-45s. Only 10 per cent said they’d like to take full advantage of this new entitlement.
I can’t say I’m surprised. It’s not the prospect of having to compete with women on a level playing field that frightens men, but the thought of having to look after their babies for a year. As a father of four, I still have vivid memories of getting tangled up in nappies and spilling sterilised breast milk on my MacBook Pro. The fact that, until this week, men were only entitled to two weeks paternal leave was a godsend. (To read more, click here.)
I read with some interest the proposal for Oxford and Cambridge to set up state-school only colleges in the Guardian this week. As someone who was educated exclusively in the state sector, and then went on to Oxford [itals] and [itals] Cambridge, I have a special interest in this area.
I’m not in favour, obviously. The main objection is that if Britain’s two best universities set aside a quota of places for applicants from state schools they would effectively be saying that independent schools will always be better. That would be profoundly demoralising to those of us trying to raise standards in non-selective state schools. Comprehensives will only appeal to people from all walks of life, including the professional elite, if the education they’re providing is every bit as good as that at Rugby or Stowe. That won’t happen if you hold comprehensives to lower standards.
Some people will accuse me of hypocrisy because I was the beneficiary of positive discrimination myself. I applied to Brasenose because it had introduced a special scheme to attract candidates from state schools and, after a gruelling interview, I received a low conditional offer. Nevertheless, I’m a good illustration of why this form of positive discrimination is wrong-headed. My father was a Labour Party peer and when I applied to Oxford I was at a grammar school on the edge of Hampstead heath. I didn’t deserve special treatment, yet if Oxford and Cambridge set aside places for state school applicants it would be children like me who’d reap the rewards, not children on free school meals. (To read more, click here.)
I'm not sure what to make of Tristram Hunt's most recent policy proposal. Nothing wrong with wanting independent schools to do more for state schools, but he must know that threatening them with a new tax unless they dance to Labour's tune won't work.
At present, independent schools are entitled to 80 per cent relief on business rates, a benefit extended to all charities, whether educational or not. Hunt's idea is to threaten independent schools with the loss of this tax break, which is purportedly worth £165 million a year, unless they set up partnerships with state schools. Problem is, the last Labour government tried to use the charitable status of independent schools to try and force them to behave in a particular way and failed. In 2011, the Upper Tier Tax Tribunal decided that new rules introduced by the Charity Commission in 2006 requiring independent schools in England and Wales to offer more bursaries to children from low income families should be rewritten or withdrawn. The reason for this is that the rules granted the Commission too much power when it came to defining what constituted a "public benefit". The Tribunal didn't dispute that independent schools needed to provide a "public benefit" to retain their charitable status, but decided the schools themselves should have more latitude about the charitable activities they engaged in.
If a Labour government leant on the Charity Commission to introduce a similar rule change, it would likely meet with the same fate. It could try another method of forcing independent schools to comply with this new edict, such as amending a statutory instrument, but that would almost certainly fall foul of the Human Rights Act because it would be discriminatory to require certain charities to jump through various hoops and not others. The chances of Hunt's proposal ever seeing the light of day are, therefore, pretty remote. (To read more, click here.)
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.)