Unpredictable Trump

What will he come up with next? There just is no telling, not even in the White House. From the sound of it, nobody was expecting the latest bombshell - cosy talks between Donald and Kim, nestling up together, all thoughts of "rocket man" insults cheerily discarded for the sake of a headline - and the shock value of catching everyone on the hop.

By next day, of course, the tweets head in a different direction, and there's all sorts of assurances that of course no talks will take place without North Korea solemnly committing themselves to...who knows? It's certainly not diplomacy as we know it, and even if it achieved some kind of temporary truce, who knows how long that will last? volatile is the name of the game, and it'll stay that way for as long as Trump lasts.

Russians Again

Pesky lot, the Russians. Just as you're starting to feel some sympathy, they kick you in the teeth. A TV documentary on Putin the other night featured a contrite Jack Straw, saying that the West had misread the risings in Georgia and Ukraine, and contributed to Putin's paranoia by trying to hijack local resistance into an East/West split. Absolutely right, and you can see the defensive "us against the world" syndrome clicking in all the time. On the other hand, the doping stuff is totally unacceptable, and has to be fought every inch of the way. ditto Litvinenko. And ditto - it seems very likely - Sunday's nerve agent attack on Skripal and his daughter. Easy to predict the rhetoric and the outrage. Much harder to say what we'll actually do. Having a few officials not turn up to the world Cup won't make a blind bit of difference. boycotting it - and getting other European nations to do the same - would seriously injure Russian prestige, but it's not going to happen.  

I, Tonya

It's a good time for movies. A few really good ones - like The Shape of Water - but also some weird surprises, of things that might have been tacky but weren't. film Stars don't Die in Liverpool, The Battle of the Sexes, and now I Tonya, the potentially depressing story of a tough, working class kid who happened to be brilliant at skating - despite failing to fit into the prescribed categories for girl skaters - petite, demure, styling and obedient. In one sense it doesn't help that her mum is a ruthless tyrant, though her mum - a brilliant Alison Janney - might well argue that it's that that got her through. early family life is bad, marriage is eventually much worse, and the trail of misfortune, from her no-good husband to his deluded friend, who hires incompetent hitmen to break the leg of Tonya's biggest rival...If anything could go wrong, it did. But the film is a marvel of honesty and commitment - good actors making tough choices and completely convincing me, at any rate, of the reality of what I'm watching. Margot Robbie probably won't get an Oscar, but I'd be delighted to be proved wrong.     

Making the Case

Sir Martin Donnelly, once Liam Fox's chief civil servant, has described leaving the EU as "like swapping a three-course meal for crisps." Fox is not impressed, dismissing Donnelly for sticking to the patterns of the past. and what does the future look like, in Fox's view? "Confidence, optimism and vision will always deliver more than pessimism or self-doubt." Whether or not that's true, Fox would have benefitted from attending an Arvon writing course, which would have taught him that a snappy concerete image will always beat a string of abstract nouns. 

Russian doping

Well, why not? Might as well call a spade a spade. I'd had a sense of Russia getting away with stuff on the doping front, slightly reinforced by odd asides as part of the Winter Olympics coverage. But now the scales have fallen from my eyes, and the whole picture is dazzlingly clear.

And what makes the difference? Watching the Netflix documentary Icarus, that's what. It's one of those quirky autobiographical documentaries which starts as as something completely different, but then becomes rivetting as a whole new story unravels before your disbelieving eyes. Ryan Gilbey is a keen amateur cyclist and film-maker, who gets intrigued by the possibility of training himself in the illegal use of drugs to improve his performance - if he can do it, starting from scratch, then surely anyone can. First he gets an American expert to help him, who then gets second thoughts, because this might harm his professional profile, but as a parting gift he puts Ryan in touch with Grigory Rodchenko...

Who just happens to be the mastermind behind Russian Olympic doping. They develop an odd kind of jokey friendship, until things start to unravel. WADA is looking into doping, and seriously investigating what the Russians do. Rodchenko is under pressure, but also scared that he may get ditched as a scapegoat (it has happened before. He got locked up in an asylum, and was only released because Putin's mate needed him to come out and run the programmme. So maybe it's safer to go to the Us...but should he help prosecute the Russians, or try to protect himself by going to the press? It's confused, fascinating and scary, but on the way it provides absolutely total proof that this was a watertight, state-approved programme of deceit, on a massive scale. anyone who thinks that the Russians are the victims of political pressure, or have suddenly cleaned up their act with miraculous precision, is kidding themselves.    

Darkest Hour

The cinema was packed. "Oh, you'll love it," a friend confidently assured me. And the friend I was with did love it. So maybe I'm just eccentric, but I thought Darkest Hour was terrible. Gary Oldman's terrific, ditto Kristin Scott Thomas, but the basic idea, the shoddy superficiality of the script, just appalled me. If I were feeling really gloomy I'd say it was a hymn to Brexit, a celebration of the people's vote which sets us free. Quirky, lovable Winston Churchill, uncertain under the pressure of smooth appeaseniks like Lord Halifax, isn't sure whether to sticj to hios comabtive guns. so he goes down into the underground, for the first time in his life, talks to randon strangers, and then comes back to the surface to rouse the houses of Parliament by quoting the sage advice of his new-found friends. Just like Ed Miliband on a bad day. The German ambassador got it exactly right. A country which takes comfort in wtaching such films id deeply delusional about his history, its identity and its future chances of survival.  

Edge of Empire

Oh, the pleasure of reading a well-written book. I'd ordered Maya Jasanoff's well-reviewed book about Conrad, but then saw that the library had another book of hers sitting on the shelves, with no need to work through a waiting list. So why not start with that while I'm waiting? It's a weird, original take. Study empire through the collections and the collectors who were involved in it. She moves from India to Egypt, all the time laying out a detailed, vivid account of lives and movements, changes in atmosphere and long-term developments. It's tiny print, which is something I normally can't stand, and 300 densely packed pages, but it's a sheer joy, because it's patient, intelligent and beautifully organised. there's none of the posturing and wielding of cartoon simplifications that you get with the noisier debaters of empire, pro and con. It's complex reality, enthusiastically researched, in a way that comes vividly to life.

Hard Sun hubris

Yes, it's official. As a TV viewer I am hard to please. Starting off with a clutch of half a dozen drama series that looked promising, I've watched almost all of them come apart. This weekend I thought I'd do my duty and finish off watching Hard sun, although I had serious misgivings. It started off - promisingly - being about the end of the world. then it diverted onto much more predictable serial killer territory, and then in the final episode it did a sudden sharp turn towards assisted suicide and weird transformation of victims who seem to have been lobotomised.

Through it all our intrepid central pair of sexy pin-ups charge remorseless, apparently unfettered by any connection with the organisation for whom they work, and immune from the threatening secret services they've openly defied. And then there's their private lives. She has a psychotic son who wants to kill er, and several episodes ago was about to have sex with a reporter, but she's completely forgotten about all that. He's a loving, kind, obsessive parent - except he isn't, and has been cheating on his wife with the widow of the colleague he killed way back when.     

It's a mess. entirely unconvincing, and streets behind series like Spiral or Before We Die, which aren't models of plausibility but do have some kind of integral consistency, their own heightened world we can sort of believe in. But Neil Cross, apparently, not waiting to see how the customers react, is planning to write another four series of this stuff. Isn't it time for somebody, somewhere, to "take back control"?   


A few weeks back, I was raving about the dramatic increase in the quality of TV drama. Oh dear. One by one, they disappoint me, settle for the easy cops and robbers route, simplify the issues, let characters lose all consistency and the plot lose plausibility - so long as it makes a good Tv moment. Cos we're peasants, and we'll settle for anything, right?

The saddest betray of all was Kiri, which in moments was a stunning look at what social workers do and what they have to put up with. But the denouement was all over the place. (SPOILER ALERT: if you haven't watched it but plan to, look away here.)

Kiri has been illegally taken off by her biological father, from whom she then got separated, and killed by persons unknown. In the last episode, it turns out she was killed by her adopted dad, who couldn't bear that she was going off with her biological dad after all they'd done for her. Only snag is, biological dad knows nothing about this. He told the police that he and his daughter got separated, and he was looking for her all over. If they'd agreed to go off together, surely he'd be sitting outside her house, engine running, waiting for her to skip into the car.

If I pick this up on one viewing, surely they could afford to have somebody (unpaid amateur playwright like me, for instance) to go through the script looking for implausibilities, before they spend thousands on spurious political demonstrations that they don't need?      

Plastic Progress?

There was a day when May got the headlines for an environmental initiative - yes, we were going to clean up plastics by...what was it...2040? Well, good for her. Yes, it's important. Something needs doing. Right to make it an issue, though it would be good to see a bit more urgency, direct application of government will.

But gradually, bit by bit, the full story starts to emerge. Compared with other countries, our record on clean energy is atrocious. After Cameron's brief flirtation with greenness, Osborne killed solar energy in the UK, and now May's doing something similar to wind power. You don't have to be nastily destructive - just fail to see the opportunity, and reduce the incentives for firms to invest in the future.

Even worse, when initiatives come up which include a chance of collaboration, countries actually working together for a cleaner planet, we're in there, diluting the rules, changing the message, making sure that the change is as minimal as possible. The price of Brexit, apparently, is that we shall find as many ways as possible of humiliating ourselves in the eyes of the world.  

Hope for the Future?

Yes, a politician with whom I'm impressed, because she has a vision for the future. It's maybe a sign of the times that she's a conservative, but these days we get our inspiration wherever it occurs. I am increasingly impressed by Justine Greening.

That's right. the one who got sacked. Went to a comprehensive, wasn't keen on grammar schools, had a halfway realistic approach to the teaching unions. so she had to go. Was offered something else, but turned it down. a bit like Jeremy Hunt, except that she didn't stay put where she was, while also picking up another department. But she did at least go with dignity.

But not to sulk. She's in the news today for talking about Brexit. And what she's saying is - if young people think it's a rubbish move, in the end they'll work to reverse it. Has anyone else in any kid of position said this? Actually thought about how the current pantomime looks to people under 30, and what might happen as a result? I'd have her in as PM tomorrow, but what do I know? She is at least trying, and trying to be constructive. she'll get a lot of flak for it, but she looks to me like the sort of MP we need.    

Hostile Environment

I've been following this one for a while. When I first used it in poems, people were sure i'd made it up. but no,. Home Secretary Theresa May really did have a sub-committee working under this title, whose job it was to make life unpleasant for people from abroad. At some point it all seemed to go quiet, maybe because PM Cameron didn't think it was a good look, given that he's a caring sort of guy. But once he's gone, and May's back in charge, the policy and the slogan go full steam ahead - she uses it proudly, confident that the Brexit vote gives the Home Office a mandate to persecute anyone who wasn't actually born here. 

But now, finally, there are signs that these assumptions are being questioned. The Home Affairs select committee slams the failure of the Home Office to base immigration policy on any serious analysis, and goes through the appalling record of victimisation and incompetence over the past few years. " We believe people should be working together to build consensus on the benefits and address concerns about problems on immigration." Wow. If that approach is maintained, there'll be a lot of changes in how the Home Office operates, and it's not before time. 

Quality TV

Having moaned at Christmas about the dross that was on offer from mainline TV channels, it's only fair to say that in the New Year things have picked up considerably. As I trawl through the week's offerings, planing my viewing, there's a lot more that's worth a look than there used to be. Drama - McMafia, Hard Sun, Next of Kin, Kiri, Girlfriends. Varied, not everyone's taste, and by no means perfect - but each crafted with a fair bit of care and intelligence, so that you don't feel insulted as soon as you start to watch. Documentaries - House of Saud, A House through Time, Working class White Men, Great Art. Again,very varied, but I've not given up on any of them, and I'm told that i'm hard to please. And then there's one off treats like the GBS bio, or next week's offering on James Joyce, not to mention Inside No. 9, which on the basis of two episodes is looking unmissable. Grab it while you can; it may not last.   

Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool

It's the week for "films which are much better than you'd think." On Friday I watched The Battle of the Sexes, which turned the Bobby Riggs-Billie Jean King circus into a really interesting piece of social history, not to mention an affair between King and her hairdresser which could have been sentimental or tacky but was really moving (Emma Stone and Andrea Riseborough, both excellent).

And now, three nights later, comes Film Stars don't Die in Liverpool. Real life story of aging Hollywood actress having an affair with younger Liverpool actor. Lots of tackiness potential there - but it's rivetting. Really clever movement back and forth through time, initially explained with subtitled headings, but then as it gains momentum we're trusted to work out for ourselves what's happening, and when.  and if you're of a certain age, the fact that the 'when' is mainly 1979-81 is a bonus, because they've really worked to take you back there. On top of that, the story's consistently changing, as we revisit episodes with a fuller awareness of what's going on for both the main people. Who are terrific. Annette Bening was no surprise, but if all you know of Jamie Bell is Billy Elliott, then prepare to be knocked sideways. It's a touching, varied, profound study of a relationship - a real treat.  

Royal Wedding

It was fairly predictable that a Windsor councillor would at some point complain about the homeless littering the streets, and try to ensure that they are bulldozed or hosed off the pavements before Harry and Meghan's big day. What's gratifying is the speed and confidence with which this proposal has been resisted. The police are quick to point out that this isn't a simple matter of people wandering on to the wrong patch. People are homeless for a reason, and for lack of alternatives, and simply wiping them out of the immediate line of sight isn't a solution to anything. Which is a relief, because everything we hear about Harry and Meghan suggests that they'd be appalled to be used as the reason for brutal social engineering.   

Born to Run

I've had a great run of library books recently - Home Fire, Manhattan Beach - but this is one of the best, and it was a total surprise. I went down to pick up another book I'd ordered, and there on the shelves was Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run. chunky hardback weighing in at over 500 pages, but it's free so I give it a go. It's really good. Well-written, thoughtful and honest, he's worked really hard at trying to understand where he's got to and how he's changed. He seems very clear about his own shortcomings, and the effects they have on those around him, and he's great an conveying the excitement of playing in a band which seriously works to ensure that its fans have a good time. It's safe to say that I'll never go to a Springsteen concert now, but I'm clearer than I was that I've missed out, that there really is something special going on. 

Tax Cuts

And yes, it's Trump again, bu what else can you do, when he's determined to hog the agenda? That's what you get when you vote for a volatile narcissist to be the most powerful person in the world. He's celebrating today, because he's got his tax cuts through, and is triumphantly signing them the day before Christmas. He said he'#d do it and he has, and his supporters line the steps, looking wonderfully, smugly happy. I don't think this is because the move will bring employment or a rise in living standards for their constituents. It's about profits, and rich people making more money than they were before. If ever you wanted a demonstration of why it isn't enough to see if business is happy, this is it. The Dow Jones loves it, but the prospects for most Americans are bleaker than ever before.  

We are taking names.

So says Nikki Haley, threatening the UN like an old style primary school teacher. Amazingly, it didn't work. "We're Bolivia. Make sure you get that down. We want to be top of the list", says the Bolivian representative as they go ahead anyway, and vote in condemnation of Trump's endorsement of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital.

It won't help in Jerusalem, of course. And the UN may well end up weaker, and poorer, as a result. But once you instal Trump as US president then there are a lot of things that are going to get worse. the Middle East situation will certainly deteriorate, but it's better that Trump's bullying is defied rather than letting it be indulged. Nikki Haley doesn't look that good, either, unless you look long-term through a narrow US lens - American journalists are saying this boosts her chances for a later Presidential run. God help us all.      

Let's do it all again...

Or maybe not. The Labour Party are saying they don't want to rerun the Brexit vote, and I'm mightily relieved. Was the first round a deceitful fiasco? Certainly was. Was the result dangerously close and secretly influenced by foreign groups? Yes indeed. Would the future of this country be more secure if we decided to stay in after all? Absolutely.

But I don't want another vote, because I don't want another campaign. Also in today's paper is an article by Dominic Grieve headed "Rational debate is drowned out in this climate of Brexit vitriol." The abuse and threats that he and others have received would have been unthinkable ten years ago. It's common to hear "Do you want what Jo Cox got?" as if this were a predictable part of the business of politics. The campaign we had last time was appalling, and the media was totally ill-equipped to cope. I don't see any evidence that things have substantially improved. If anything's going to rescue us from this it'll have to be the intelligence and conscience of MPs. Yeah, I know. but it's all we have.   

Staying Put

Ok, so this is two posts running about Home Office harassment, but I'm not apologising for that. the Sheila Hale case was a bad joke. Paulette Wilson's is much more serious. Came here 50 years ago, aged 10. lived and worked here, now a grandmother, no other home. Two weeks ago they picked her up, took her to detention near the airport, and without her MP's intervention she'd have been on her way. Staying Put was a wonderful poetry and music concert, put on in Wolverhampton by the great Steve Pottinger, to highlight Paulette's case and raise money in her support. It was a fabulous night - ten minutes each of eight poets, and a ukulele band which also featured sax and bass guitar. Best of all, Paulette came and really enjoyed herself. All she needs now is some common sense and decency from the Home Office, but if your main mission is to create a hostile environment, then those are in short supply.