In his Memoirs, Kingsley Amis includes a story about meeting Roald Dahl at a party in the 1970s. Dahl advises him to write a children’s book – “That’s where the money is” – and brushes aside his objection that he doesn’t think it would be any good. “Never mind, the little bastards’d swallow it,” he says. Then, a few minutes later, Dahl raises himself to his full height, and, with the air of a man asserting his integrity in the face of an outrageous slur, says: “If you do decide to have a crack, let me give you one word of warning. Unless you put everything you’ve got into it, unless you write it from the heart, the kids’ll have no use for it. They’ll see you’re having them on… Just you bear that in mind as a word of friendly advice.”
I was reminded of this anecdote last Saturday while watching The Twits, an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s novel at the Royal Court. As a production, it was a peculiar combination of cynicism and sincerity – condescendingly didactic and painfully earnest at the same time. (To read more, click here.)
I couldn’t quite believe it when Nicola Sturgeon called for the resignation of Alistair Carmichael, the former Scottish Secretary, over his role in the leaked memo affair. As readers will recall, the Daily Telegraph published a confidential document during the election campaign that purported to be an account of a conversation between Sturgeon and the French Ambassador in which she said she’d prefer David Cameron to Ed Miliband as Prime Minister. Carmichael has now owned up to leaking the document, which originated in the Scottish Office, but this isn’t the cause of Sturgeon’s outrage. No, Carmichael’s sin was denying all knowledge of the leak when asked about it at the time. For this, apparently, he should “consider his position”.
Politicians pretend to be shocked by each other’s behaviour all the time, but this is a particularly shameless example. To begin with, there’s more than a smidgen of cold calculation behind the white heat of Sturgeon’s indignation. The reason she has singled out Carmichael’s alleged dishonesty rather than his breach of confidentiality is because she doesn’t want anyone to focus on the substance of the memo. Why? Because it was almost certainly an accurate account of what she actually said to the French Ambassador.
But more fundamentally, it’s completely hypocritical of the SNP leader to complain about anyone else’s duplicity given her party’s conduct in the run-up to the referendum. (To read more, click here.)
I was disappointed to hear Andy Burnham on Marr last Sunday declare his opposition to free schools. He put plenty of distance between himself and Ed Miliband, even admitting Labour spent too much in the run-up to the recession, which is quite something given that he was the Chief Secretary to the Treasury at the time. But Miliband was spot on, apparently, when it came to free schools. He then reeled off all the usual guff about “experimenting with children’s education”, “surplus places”, “unqualified teachers”, etc.
It’s tempting to take Burnham to task over this, particularly as he’s the favourite to become the next Labour leader. What could be clearer evidence that he’s in the pocket of Len McCluskey than siding with the teaching unions? But I’m going to rise above it. Burnham is like one of those Japanese soldiers who emerges from the Burmese jungle, bayonet at the ready, after the war has ended. Newsflash Andy: your side lost. David Cameron has pledged to open 500 new free schools. If you add those to the 250 or so that have opened already, that brings the total to 750. Like it or not, free schools are now a permanent feature of England’s educational landscape. If and when Labour ever gets back in, they won’t be able to do anything about them.
In today’s Guardian, Matthew D’Ancona warns that David Cameron may face a successful rebellion from the 'Runnymede Tories' if he tries to repeal the Human Rights Act, led by David Davis. Not only would that be a major blow to his authority, it would make remaining in the EU a less attractive option in the forthcoming referendum. Human Rights experts insist that the two issues are wholly separate, although that’s open to debate. But there’s no doubt they’re politically linked. In the minds of some sections of the British public, a good argument for withdrawing from the EU will be to escape the jurisdiction of the European Court – they will think that, whether it’s true or not – and Cameron will be keen to ‘break the formal link between British courts and the European Court of Human Rights’ before the first votes are cast.
I’m conflicted about this. 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. (To read more, click here.)
I appeared on Radio 4 a couple of weeks ago to discuss the age-old question of whether political satire is dead. I don’t think it is, but it has lost a good deal of vitality in recent years and the role of satire in the general election campaign is a case in point. There has been no shortage of “satirical” television programmes, but none of them have cut through. The only sign of life has been the flurry of photoshopped images on Twitter that have followed each misstep of the parties’ campaigns, such as Ed Miliband’s decision to carve Labour’s election pledges on to an eight-foot stone slab. If Stanley Kubrik was still alive he’d be suing people for illegally reproducing images from the opening scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
What accounts for satire’s ailing health? I don’t hold with the text book explanation, which is that standards in public life have sunk so low that nothing a satirist could come up with could be as bad as the reality. This was what Tom Lehrer had in mind when he said political satire died when they awarded Henry Kissinger the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973. The trouble is, every generation thinks politics has hit rock bottom, but it just keeps on getting worse. In 2012, the Peace Prize was awarded to the European Union. (To read more, click here.)
For those of us who aren’t members of the centre-Left metropolitan elite, it was almost surreal watching the BBC’s army of presenters and so-called ‘experts’ on Thursday night trying to wish away the exit poll that showed Labour and the Lib Dems facing a rout and David Cameron on course to remain in No 10.
They were determined to stick to what they’d already decided was the dominant narrative of the night – the SNP’s success – and ignore the real story unfolding beneath their noses.
Seats that were expected to fall to Labour in what was supposed to be a good night for Ed Miliband’s party were held by Conservative MPs with significant swings in their favour. (To read more, click here.)
A couple of weeks ago I returned to my old Oxford college for a “gaudy” – posh, Oxford-speak for a reunion. This one was for those of us who came up to Brasenose in 1983, 1984 and 1985. That group includes the Prime Minister but, not surprisingly, he wasn’t there. I imagine he didn’t want to risk being photographed at a black tie dinner with a bunch of his old Oxford pals in the middle of a general election campaign – or maybe he just finds these occasions a bit of a bore.
When I attended my first gaudy about 15 years ago, I assumed that the only people who’d bother to turn up would be those who’d made a success of their lives and they’d spend the entire time bragging about it. In fact, it was much more random than that. The successful and the unsuccessful were mixed up together and if their different career trajectories were a source of tension it soon disappeared after the first drink. I was expecting my Oxford contemporaries to have become more status conscious with age, but it wasn’t apparent on that night. It was as if they were able to shed their personal histories and return to a more innocent period in their lives when they still had everything before them.
It was the same on this occasion. The experiences we’d had since leaving Brasenose 30 years ago seemed to vanish in a puff of smoke and we were transported back in time to the mid-eighties. Looking at all the familiar faces sitting in the dining hall, I felt like I was in an Oxford version of Back to the Future. Except, in this case, the Hollywood special effects wizards had used their magic to make everyone look 30 years older. When I was talking to the people I’d been closest to, I had to suppress the impulse to grab them and pull the pillows out from under their shirts and wipe the ageing make-up from their faces. (To read more, click here.)
If Spitting Image were still in service, you can easily imagine how it might skewer Russell Brand.
There he is, puppet head framed by flowing locks, when a friend suggets he might want to rethink some aspects of his lifestyle if he's serious about re-inventing himself as a left-wing crusader against inequality.
“Like what?” replies the jet-setting playboy with a $3m mansion in the Hollywood Hills.
Well, his friend suggests, how about cutting back on some of the less essential members of his domestic staff? Does he really need a hairdresser on call 24/7, for instance? Or a permanent chauffeur? And what about his travel arrangements? Is using a commercial airliner out of the question, instead of always travelling by private jet?
“Nah,” says Brand. “Don’t be daft.”
The weird thing is, he'd be right. It would be a daft suggestion. Russell Brand’s transformation from a cynical, sexually-voracious movie star into an earnest, working class revolutionary is now complete. The disconnect – the yawning chasm – between Brand’s decadent, extravagant lifestyle and the left-wing values he professes to believe in hasn’t caused so much as a hiccup. And it’s not just his millions of fans who have taken the new Russell Brand at face value. As we’ve seen this week, the leader of the Labour Party takes him seriously as well. Without a hint of irony, Ed Miliband has decided that abasing himself at the feet of this privately-educated, 39-year-old multi-millionaire is a good way of winning over angry, disaffected “yoofs”. (To read more, click here.)