Monday, February 20, 2017

politics: between the extremes…

"Politics: Between the Extremes” is the title of Nick Clegg’s book about his experiences as Liberal Democrats’ leader from 2007 and Deputy Prime Minister from 2010 to 2015. I’ve just finished reading it and found it absolutely fascinating (albeit somewhat depressing – given what happened in the 2015 general election and the subsequent EU referendum). I’ve read a fair number of political autobiographies over the years so know that, whatever I might think of an individual’s particular political views, these people all have the ‘gift of the gab’!

Actually, I’ve always thought that Clegg consistently comes across as a sensible, straightforward politician with views that echoed many of my own. Indeed, I voted for the Liberal Democrats at the 2010 General Election. I well remember his impressive performance at the first televised Leaders’ Debate when he made the case for a “new politics” (and pointedly commented “the more they attack each other, the more they sound exactly the same” about Cameron and Brown).
As you might imagine, I wasn’t particularly enamoured by the fact that the LibDems went into coalition with the Tories (rather than Labour), but I was at least thankful that the Tories weren’t in government on their own!
How things have changed…

We now have a Tory government. The LibDems were annihilated in the 2015 election. The Labour Party are in turmoil… and of course, we’re now having struggle with the appalling consequences EU referendum result (or, as Clegg puts it: “one of the greatest acts of national self-immolation in modern times”)!
The book contains LOTS of intriguing insights. There are far too many to list them all, but here is a flavour:
1.       “My own views became steadily more anti-establishment, the longer I was in government”.
2.       “In the end, people follow stories, not policies, in politics... Anyone who wants politics to remain sane and rational must learn to speak to the heart, and not just the head. But above all, if they want to compete with the populists and fear-mongers, liberals have to offer people the most emotionally compelling weapon at their disposal: a story of optimism about the future and faith in the  of politics to bring about positive change”.  
3.       “Political success relies on persuasive storytelling, and public trust in politicians relies on accurate representation of power. But the perception of politics, critical as it is, is quite different from its underlying purpose: changing things for the better”.
4.       “Social media… has transformed the way in which politicians, commentators, advisers, spinners, journalists, activists and other members of the political and media elite speak to each other… It’s as if a whole Petri dish of communication has been created for the few thousand people who follow the daily ins and outs of politics”.
5.       “I have witnessed a distinct shift in press coverage from reporting to opinion, from acting as the public’s witness to acting as participants in politics. Partisan coverage of politics is now the norm”.
6.       “We are governed by a political class that exists not only in a bizarre Westminster world, but also under permanent physical and emotional strain. Politicians in government endure a decision-making process that is antiquated and laborious”.
7.       “We have an arcane and deeply unrepresentative Parliament; it is not only demographically unrepresentative of the public at large, it also bears little resemblance to the democratic will expressed at the ballot box”.
8.       “Our parliamentary system, outdated as it is, reinforces a two-party system, giving the two larger parties a shared, vested interest in maintaining the status quo”.
9.       “The general election of 2015 produced the most unrepresentative result of all:  the Conservatives… only secured 37% of the votes cast – and just 24% of all eligible voters… The LibDems received 299,000 votes per seat won, whereas for the SNP it took just 26,000 votes, the Conservatives 34,000 and Labour 40,000”.
10.   “ In May 2015… they (the Conservative government) took advantage of the disarray of the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties to announce the dismantling of tax-credit support for millions of low-income working families, an assault on Housing Associations, a menacing review of the BBC, a plan to give English MPs different voting rights from other MPs, an intention to limit Freedom of Information rules, a reversal of most support to green-energy companies, and a tax giveaway to dead property millionaires – not to mention an attempt to hold a vote on fox-hunting once again”.
11.   “There is an(other) inescapable conclusion to be drawn from the result of the EU referendum, which should also drive different parties towards a broader progressive alliance: the divisions in the UK are no longer reflected in the divisions between political parties. The referendum revealed a country divided between those – the young, the educated, the metropolitan, black and minority ethnic communities – who feel comfortable with the gyrations of a modern, globalised economy and a diverse society and those – older, with fewer skills and qualifications, especially white working-class voters in the North and the Midlands – who do not. This division bears almost no relation to the traditional left-right axis by which Westminster parties are traditionally organised”.
12.   “Campaign groups like 38 Degrees and change.org have harnessed online technology to become hugely effective lobbying operations, sharing petitions and calls to action on social media, and mobilising people to email their MPs in large numbers. It is an electronic form of direct democracy that kills stone-dead the notion that people are no longer engaged in politics. They are. It’s just that they increasingly view political parties as part of the problem, not the solution”.
13.   “Excessive centralisation disempowers the communities that make up Britain’s modern, plural identity”
14.   “British politics is crying out for wholesale renewal… Reformists in all parties should resolve to work together to renew our politics”.
15.   “In addition to the long-standing moral concern about excessive levels of inequality, there is increasing acceptance of the idea that inequality itself is a significant cause of the very boom and bust that makes the rich richer, the poor poorer, and creates the kind of insecurity upon which populism thrives”.
16.   “It doesn’t help that only 43% of 18-24 year-olds voted in the general election of 2015, compared to 78% of over 65s; nor that the proportion of the UK population aged 65+ is forecast to jump from 17.6% in 2014 to 27.1 in 2064… A new grand bargain between the generations is needed if we are to avoid an increasingly acrimonious tug of war between the young and old, for limited public subsidies at a time of low or stagnant growth”.

Nick Clegg’s book provides a passionate plea for the centre ground of British politics. He writes candidly about the political challenges he faced over the past decade (and his mistakes); he lifts the lid on the arcane worlds of Westminster and Brussels and on the vested interests that suffocate reform. In my view, he’s much better at providing a critical analysis of the political climate in Britain today than in giving us solutions (are there any?). I think the book reflects his frustration and sadness about the current state of British politics… and his own inability to change things.
He concludes by saying:
“But – at some point – political parties that believe in reason over populism, in moderation over the politics of grievance, in compromise over factionalism, will be called upon once again to put the national interest first.
Reason, in the end, will win against unreason”.
Amen to that.  

Monday, February 13, 2017

january-february 2017 books…

Love, Nina (Nina Stibbe): This book was first published in 2013 (and it’s subsequently been turned into a television series). I knew nothing about any of this, but Moira thought I’d enjoy it. It’s 1982. Nina Stibbe has come to London (from Leicester) to work as a nanny to the two boys of a grand literary editor in their big Camden home (Alan Bennett is one of their distinguished neighbours and features in the book on a regular basis). Nina becomes part of the family (despite having no idea how to cook or look after children) and writes letters home to her sister about them and their friends. Almost 30 years later, her letters are published as a book and becomes an unlikely bestseller. Well, in these tough times of Trump, Brexit et al, this is the PERFECT book. I found it laugh-out-loud funny. Situations are described and are frequently followed by bits of hilarious dialogue from the household - the mother Mary-Kay (MK), the boys Will+Sam, Alan Bennett (AB) and Nina herself. Quite, quite brilliant… funny, warm, life-affirming and wonderfully observed. I really enjoyed it.
Cold Comfort Farm (Stella Gibbons): I’d never read Gibbons’s 1932 novel, but Moira reminded me that we’d listened to Kenneth Williams reading it on Radio4 in 1974. So, as you might imagine, I read this book ‘hearing’ KW’s wonderful voice throughout! The book tells the tale of orphaned Flora Poste (“expensively, athletically and lengthily educated”) descending on her truly bizarre relatives at Cold Comfort Farm… and how she “felt it incumbent upon her to bring order into chaos”. It’s a lovely parody of the somewhat melodramatic novels of the period and I very much enjoyed reading it.
The Invention of Nature (Andrea Wulf): This book is about Alexander von Humboldt. Who? No, I hadn’t heard about him before I read the book. Humboldt (1769-1859) was an amazing, intrepid explorer and the most famous scientist of his age. His adventurous life included climbing the world’s highest volcanoes, racing through anthrax-infected Siberia and translating his extensive research into countless important publications that changed science and thinking. He inspired other naturalists and poets such as Darwin, Wordsworth, Goethe, Thoreau, Simon Bolivar, Thomas Jefferson and John Muir. This is a brilliantly researched and compelling book (there are some 120 pages of notes, sources and bibliography alone!) about someone who should probably be regarded as the greatest scientist of the 19th century.
Ink (Alice Broadway): I’ve blogged about this elsewhere, so I won’t bother to repeat myself… but, essentially (in the words of the publisher’s blurb): “Every action, every deed, every significant moment is tattooed on your skin for ever. When Leora's father dies, she is determined to see her father remembered forever. She knows he deserves to have all his tattoos removed and made into a Skin Book to stand as a record of his good life. But when she discovers that his ink has been edited and his book is incomplete, she wonders whether she ever knew him at all”. I loved it (but might be a little biased!).
Seven Brief Lessons on Physics (Carlo Rovelli): This is an extraordinary book. It comprises (as the title suggests!) 7 brief lessons written for people who know little or nothing about science. Rovelli is a wonderful communicator and gives explanations of the most complicated theories in simple, everyday language… and he’s amusing with it! I’ve always had an interest in science, but the things that struck me in reading this book were: a) just how much we owe to the physicists of the past 100 years for the things we take for granted in our lives today, b) just how amazingly imaginative, creative and inventive physicists have been and continue to be, and c) just how vast is the extent of what is still unknown. I can’t pretend to have understood all of Rovelli’s explanations (loop quantum gravity? gluons?), but I did find his short book rather wonderful… did you know, for example, that there are in the universe “thousands of billions of billions of billions of planets such as Earth”? Me neither.

 

Friday, February 10, 2017

more ink...

It’s a very proud moment when your daughter has her first novel published – especially when it’s been received by those who ‘know’ about these things with some acclaim.
But, of course, there comes the time when you actually read it for yourself...
I’m not particularly a ‘fiction’ person and I can’t actually think that I’ve read a YA (Young Adult) book before. Wouldn’t it be awful if I loathed it!?
Well, huge relief, I finished it this morning… and I loved it.

I’m not going to spoil things for you and so I’ll just repeat some of the words on the book’s cover: “Imagine a world where your every action, your every deed, is marked on your skin for all to see…”.
Yes, it’s a YA novel almost written in the form of a fable (I’m sure Alice would disagree!), but I also think it could be interpreted as a profound reflection or metaphor (for young adults and adults alike) of what’s happening in the world today. It’s about truth, wisdom, loyalty, justice, love… it’s about fears and taboos; it’s about society and who we are; it’s about greed and power; it’s about belief; it’s about conformity; it’s about passion and beauty; it’s about integrity and honesty; it’s about the future.
Yes, it might ‘just’ be a YA novel for goodness sake(!), but it also spoke to me about such matters as society’s attitudes post-Brexit, what’s happened in Syria and even Mr Trump!
For me, the novel’s transparent world (where your every action is marked on your skin) reminded me of the virtual facebook world - where we can choose to post stuff that allows us to come across as being an enviable ‘good guy’ or ‘the perfect couple’ (complete with happy family photos, news about our latest wonderful world cruise and the like). The difference is that, with facebook, we can also choose to hide our true beliefs and characteristics (and the details are forgotten within a couple of days).

I always knew that Alice could write (and isn’t it wonderful when someone’s childhood dreams really do come true!), but I didn’t realise that she had such a gift for storytelling. I even cried at the end (I’m always crying these days… and feel a bit like Keith Brymer Jones, the judge on TV’s “Great Pottery Throw Down”, crying as he marvels at the achievements of a particular contestant!) - partly because of the simple beauty and power of the story, but also because of a realisation that “oh my goodness, she really has done it… and she’s bloomin’ good too!”.
As a friend on facebook said: “you must be very proud”.
You bet.

Thursday, February 02, 2017

small voices in the political darkness…

So ‘Brexit Secretary’ David Davis will apparently present a White Paper later today setting out how the UK proposes to leave the EU.
I have to say that I found this week’s debate on Article 50 hugely disappointing. Yes, there were some impassioned contributions from the likes of Ken Clarke, Caroline Lucas, Heidi Alexander and a host of SNP MPs… but, with the Labour Party imposing a three-line whip in support of the government’s bill, it was all going to grind to an inevitable conclusion (our own South Bristol MP, Karin Smyth, voted in favour).
I continue to feel massively depressed and powerless to change things (despite the successes of the recent ‘people power’ demonstrations against Trump).

PollyToynbee had written a wonderfully passionate article about the Labour Opposition’s duty to the country in Tuesday’s Guardian (I don’t always agree with her views, but thought she was spot on here). Her pleas were largely ignored and the vote was passed by a huge majority.
For me, Green Party Co-Leader, Caroline Lucas, summed up the depressing situation precisely: Watching so many Labour MPs troop through the yes lobby with the Tories was truly disheartening. The Conservatives are set to benefit hugely from rushing through this vote with as little dissent as possible and it’s given them far more opportunity to morph a narrow referendum result in favour of leaving the EU into an overwhelming mandate to depart from the world’s biggest trading zone, wrecking our social and environmental protections along the way. It’s now down to MPs to work across party lines to amend this Bill and attempt to avoid the very real dangers of Britain falling off the Brexit cliff edge. As the co-leader of a party that stands for environmental, social and economic justice, I could not support a government offering no assurances to EU nationals living in Britain, threatening the funding of our public services, and planning to end of membership of the single market and customs union. In the coming weeks I’ll be standing up to this Government’s extreme Brexit plans at every stage – and doing all I can to protect our hard won environment and social protections”.part from the world’s biggest trading zone, wrecking our social and environmental protections along the way.part from the world’s biggest trading zone, wrecking our social and environmental protections along the way.

I’m sick and tired of reading about needing to “respect the will of the people”. The referendum result was NOT about giving the Tories the opportunity to impose a series of profoundly right wing measures.
AnnePerkins’s article in today’s Guardian pleads for Labour MPs to “be bold and challenge these Brexit lies”. Absolutely!
Labour’s Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, apparently indicated (on this morning’s “Today” programme on Radio4) that “Labour would come together as a party to shape Brexit”.
Well, about blooming time!!

Sadly, with the Labour Party’s pathetic, chaotic and depressing performance in Opposition over the past 12 months or so, the Labour Party (to my mind) is a spent force. As things stand, the Tories will be in power for the rest of my lifetime. Indeed, one of my friends posted similar thoughts on facebook this morning: “In my lifetime will there ever be a credible political opposition to the Tories?”. I think he may be right.
How utterly, utterly depressing.

ink...

Yesterday, Moira, Ruth, Hannah and I travelled up to London for the launch of Alice’s first novel, “Ink” (available at all good bookshops!).
I’d never been to a ‘book launch’ before, but I was conscious of a very real, tangible sense of excitement (and cake… and wine!). It was a very lovely evening.
I’ve yet to read Alice’s book (it’s the first of a trilogy). I’ve consciously avoided reading the proof copy so I can read the ‘real thing’.
It’s a Young Adult novel. Its synopsis is this: “Every action, every deed, every significant moment is tattooed on your skin for ever. When Leora's father dies, she is determined to see her father remembered forever. She knows he deserves to have all his tattoos removed and made into a Skin Book to stand as a record of his good life. But when she discovers that his ink has been edited and his book is incomplete, she wonders whether she ever knew him at all”.
The book has already received some wonderful feedback and, apparently, translation rights have been signed in TEN countries!
At last night’s launch, Alice’s editor at Scolastic read a note she’d received from an Italian editor about “Ink” (I’d previously read it… and it had made me cry). I’d like to share his post and just hope that I’m not treading on anyone’s toes by doing so:
I have three little scars, right between my eyebrows. It’s what varicella left me back when I was a kid, and I didn’t have the patience to wait for the scabs to do their own course. Though, those little signs became me as much as they are the shape of my nose, or my bad temper, or the people I know.
When a couple of years ago my cat scratched my first son closest to his right eye, after the initial dread I just found myself thinking that he was now different from how he was born. Life happened to him, somehow: in a parallel universe, there is a different version of him who has not that scar, who is another him than the one I know. And it’s mutual: the one that he knows is the version of me with the three little scars between the eyebrows.
And I do hope that he won’t forget me.
How I loved to become a book. How I loved to be able to have my ancestors’ tales with me. And, of course, to be a reader.
That was what left me those enchanting first twenty pages of INK I had the chance to read before Bologna’s Fair. That is why I insisted so much with the people from Scholastic to keep me posted about the book with the purest, most honest, crystal clearest idea I had bumped into in a long, long time.
Yet, the final text thought me much more. Our bodies heal, our bodies repair. My body doesn’t tell tales on me for every single mistakes. I might have three little scars, but if they are important is because they are my dad coming home to spend some time with me, my mother taking care of me, my sister trying to cheer me up. They are somehow the legacy of a love. Just as the scar on my son is the sign of a cat, and the dread of a father.
I’m not the right kind of anything, like Leora; but I do think that book can save our souls. Can help us remember.
And yes, now, Alice Broadway, I remember you. I will always do.
It will be such a pride to be the one who will make other people in Italy remember you as well”.
Pretty special when someone writes such things about something one of your daughters has created?
Absolutely. It brought tears to my eyes again as I re-read it this morning (it must be an age thing!).
I will be reading Alice’s book over the coming weeks (of course!). As you might imagine, the prospect of doing so is both exciting and scary… will I enjoy it? Actually, it doesn’t really matter because I know that lots of other people already have. I promise to keep you posted(!)...
A very special time for Alice… and for Dave… and her children… and for all of us in the rest of her family.
Sometimes, childhood dreams really do come true.
Photo: Ruth’s family pic from last night’s book launch.

Monday, January 30, 2017

mirga grazinyte-tyla: beethoven’s fifth with the CBSO…

Oh. My. Goodness.
Moira, Lesley, Alan and I went along to the Symphony Hall in Birmingham yesterday afternoon to see/listen to the CBSO perform Haydn’s Symphony no.31, Mozart’s Piano Concerto no.27 (with the wonderful Francesco Piemontesi on piano) and Beethoven’s Symphony no.5.
But, I have to admit that the main reason we were there was to see the orchestra’s new conductor ‘in action’.
Her name is Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla.
You’ve probably never heard of her… but she’s been described as “conducting’s next super star”. She was appointed Director of the acclaimed CBSO last year at the ridiculously young age of 29. She’s from Lithuania and she’s already worked with some of the world’s leading orchestras after winning the Nestle Conducting Competition in 2012.

But, look, what do I know? I’m certainly no classical music expert(!) and I don’t know a huge amount about the art of conducting (understatement)… and, for goodness sake, watching the “Maestro” television series hardly makes me an expert (although I DID love it)! Having said that, we have been very fortunate to have been able to follow the rather brilliant conducting career of our very good friend Daniel Harding (who we’ve known from his childhood… and who is currently principal conductor of the Orchestre de Paris). Daniel was hired by Simon Rattle to be his assistant with the CBSO (small world!) at the tender age of 17! I’ve watched Daniel on a number of occasions and recall being hugely impressed on hearing his interpretation of Mahler’s Symphony no.5 (one of my very favourite pieces of music) some years ago and suddenly realising the importance of the conductor to any orchestra or piece of music.

The Symphony Hall had a virtual sell-out audience for this Sunday afternoon concert (yes, Sunday afternoon). You could sense a tangible level of anticipation and excitement as Grazinyte-Tyla took to the rostrum and, believe me, within the very first minute of the Haydn’s Symphony no.31, you just KNEW you were witnessing something VERY special.
This tiny, pale, pretty woman was utterly captivating to watch… she was absolutely mesmerising. She already appears to have created a wonderful rapport with the orchestra. It was simply bewitching to watch… complete control, spellbinding grace, hugely charismatic… and completely magical.

Look, I know you’ll think I’ve gone stupidly over-the-top about Grazinyte-Tyla (Mirga-mania?) but, believe me, she IS something very, very special. I strongly urge you to witness her performing alongside the CBSO (warning: go online, check out the CBSO programme and book EARLY!!)… I can guarantee that you won’t be disappointed.  
She has clearly already forged a formidable relationship with both the orchestra and the audiences.
Birmingham loves her.
The orchestra loves her.
I absolutely love her.
Photograph: Benjamin Ealovega.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

jackie…

Moira and I went along to the Watershed yesterday to see Pablo Larrain’s film “Jackie” – an intimate portrait of Jackie Kennedy in the events leading up to and immediately following the assassination of President Kennedy in November 1963.
Natalie Portman, in the title role, is simply stunning.
Initially, I thought her characterisation was a little too affected and exaggerated (her quiet, slightly ‘breathy’, slightly lispy way of speaking and her very particular way of walking), but I was quickly ‘won round’. In fact, her performance is quite extraordinary (surely an Oscar?). We see her life dissolving amid grief, politics and media management… at a time when she has to prepare to vacate the White House and to arrange a state funeral (as she sees it, “to rival that of Abraham Lincoln”).
There are a number of impressive performances by the supporting actors – including Peter Sarsgaard, Richard E Grant, Billy Crudup and Greta Gerwig – but Mica Levi’s wonderful musical score also deserves huge credit (although, perhaps to my shame, I only really became aware of it nearly half way through the film!).

Inevitably, I suppose, one is left reflecting on the parallels between the lives of Princess Diana and Jackie Kennedy – both treated as iconic beauties by people (and the media) throughout the world.
Most people from my generation (I was 14 at the time) are very familiar with the events surrounding JFK’s assassination and can recall images from that time… including watching Jackie Kennedy walking behind the gun-carriage carrying her husband’s coffin. It’s sobering to realise that it all happened 55 years ago… and that, perhaps, some of our ‘remembered’ images are simply television footage we’ve seen replayed over (and over) the intervening years. It now seems very strange to realise that JFK was only president for a little over two years.

The film brought it all back. Scenes from the White House almost felt like watching clips from “West Wing”! It was fascinating to realise that, within just a week of her husband’s death, Mrs Kennedy had summoned a journalist - wonderfully played in the film by Billy Crudup - to her home, aware (even then) of the historic importance of what had happened and of the opportunity to put her own ‘spin’ on events for all time. Some things don’t change! 
Without a doubt, it’ll be Natalie Portman’s mesmerising performance that you’ll remember from this film.
PS: Somewhat bizarrely, during the film, I also found myself reflecting on the twin images of Jackie Kennedy, ‘queen’ of the American ‘royal family’ living with all the associated luxury of the White House and of Cherie Blair, as she was caught opening the front door of their house in Islington in her nightdress on the morning after her husband’s election as prime minister!
PPS: Also a sense poignant irony to have watched John Hurt play the part of the elderly catholic priest who comforted Jackie in her grief, only to discover that (as I write this), he had died… at the age of 77.

Friday, January 27, 2017

o’hooley+tidow at st george’s…

Can’t really believe that it was four years ago that Moira and I last saw O’Hooley+Tidow at the Folk House. Well, last night, they were ‘roughing it’ at Bristol’s wonderful St George’s – complete with its Steinway grand piano… and they were simply brilliant (again).
Belinda O’Hooley and Heidi Tidow are very impressive singer-songwriters who tackle thought-provoking issues such as racism, animal cruelty, poverty, vulnerability and child abuse with remarkable, understated clarity. Their voices combine quite brilliantly (and St George’s is just a perfect venue for such gifted people!). Belinda O’Hooley clearly relished her evening on the Steinway and I was amused by the St George’s blurb indicating that “Heidi shares lead vocals with Belinda, and also provides foot percussion” (when I launch my own music career, foot percussion will be my instrument of choice... obviously!).
It was a really lovely evening (they’re very amusing too!) – they played for two hours and only stopped for 20 minutes to sell their CDs during the interval.
One of the highlights for me was when they sang Joni Mitchell’s ‘River’… that moment when two of your favourite singers begin singing a song that you instantly recognise as perhaps your favourite song in all the world (by your very favourite singer-songwriter)… that sense of “please don’t mess this up”… immediately followed by that nerve-tingling feeling when you realise that it’s going to be ok, they’re going to perform the song in a quite exquisite way.
Yes, feeling very blessed…
PS: I think they’ll be appearing in Frome on 12 March (with other performers, in the guise of “Coven”)… if you’re in the area, I suggest you book tickets!