Harry Dunn's parents

Harry Dunn was the teenager killed by an American woman driving on the wrong side of the road near RAF Croughton, in Northamptonshire. His parents went to the US to try to put pressure on the US government to compel the woman responsible, despite diplomatic immunity, to return to the UK to help with enquiries. Three successive headlines from The Guardian spell out the political capital which has been made out of this situation. 1. WHITE HOUSE ASKS TO MEET PARENTS OF TEENAGER HARRY DUNN (16.10.19) 2. TRUMP: PM ASKED ME TO SET UP MEETING WITH DUNN FAMILY (17..10.19) 3. PM “NOT AWARE” OF TRUMP’S PLAN FOR HARRY DUNN FAMILY MEETING. (18.10.19) .If it wasn’t serious it would be funny. Trump gets the parents to the White House and then says “I’ve got her next door. Want to meet her?” He’s not the President; he’s a game show host. Very reasonably, they refuse. It’s looking a bit tacky. so he says it was Johnson’s idea. Johnson says he knew nothing about it. When two famous liars disagree it’s really hard to be sure about the truth, but this is what rule by celebrity looks like, and it’s not a pretty sight. .

Postwar

Strange how the human brain works. Years ago, I bought my wife Linda tony Judt’s “Postwar”, a massive history of post war Europe that was relevant to an OU course she wa studyingat the time. i’ve known for years that this 800-page monster was sitting on her shelves, and planned that some day I’d get round to it. And then, not quite sure how or why, that day arrived. i happened not to have any books out from the library, had a stretch of time ahead of me without many commitments, so I decided that this was the time. It’ been parked in our front room for a month or more. Each day I’ve come down in my dressing gown, made a cup of tea, and have sat down to read a few pages. And gradually, bit by bit, I’ve worked my way through. There’s no way I’ll remember it all, but as I read I did have this sense of pieces fitting into place, things that had seemed a blur becoming that little bit clearer. One detail, for example. There was no bread rationing in the UK during the war - but straight after the war, there was. We were desperate, broke, and that’s part of the reason why the amazing Attlee government didn’t last.

So now I’m free to read something else, which is nice. But i’m so glad I bothered to get around to this.

What a way to run a government

It was obvious in the early heady days, before Parliament convened, that Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings were making most of the running on their own. Cabinet members were only sworn in on the understanding that they backed the Boris plan, even if that included no deal. And when Amber Rudd had had enough, and came out of cabinet in support of fellow MPs sacked from the party for not following the party line, she confirmed that within cabinet there was very little opportunity for ministers to have an effect, or contribute to the formulation of policy. So it was a bit of a shock to hear Michael Gove on Peston last week, testifying to Johnson’s “collegiate” style. Really? Boris Johnson? And now we know. After Johnson’s crunch phone call with Angela Merkel, the No. 10 spin machine was busy insisting that her intransigence had kyboshed all hope of any deal ever. And yet when Cabinet met soon after, Johnson gave them no account of this historic encounter. They are window dressing for party conference, puppets to announce incredible spending plans, but so far as active colleagues are concerned - forget it. Yet again, he’s doing his own thing and daring the grown-ups to stop him. do we have any grown-ups in the house?

A Confession

There’s more than enough police procedurals, so I often hear the hype, give them a try, and then decide within half an hour that they’re too formulaic/hysterical/violent/unrealistic and I save a lot of time by not clocking in to watch them again. but this one was different. a confession took its time, and took the people seriously. There was a detective, and he solved a couple of crimes, but he was also selfish and obsessive and hard to be around, and that was spelled out very gradually. We didn’t have close-ups of murdered girls, but we had two mothers, interestingly contrasted, who’d both had their lives turned upside down when their daughters were killed. and although this series had a chillingly convincing killer and some crucial court scenes, the real action was inside the heads of these three people - and since they had an intelligent scriptwirter, lots of time and three superb actors, it made for compulsive viewing. Catch it while you can.

Sonnets with notes

Today I launched a collection of poems. that sounds like a momentous event, but I’ve actually run quite a lot of launches recently, as I’ve got into the habit of producing short topical pamphlets: book the Priory Hall, get nibbles and drinks, summon supportive friends. I read a few poems, we chat about the issues, eat and drink a bit more, and then go home - all within an hour. A pleasant kind of routine.

But this one was different. sonnets with notes isn’t a pamphlet, it’s a proper book - with a spine and an ISBN, produced by Orphans Press (who yet again were brilliant). And it contains 50 of my best sonnets (chosen from 400) from the last twenty years - so it’s a much more considered collection than the 36-page pamphlets I’ve thrown together within a few months. In so far as I have a poetic legacy, this is probably it. Certainlt the majority of my successes have come from sonnets (8 first-three placings out of 11, if you want the figures), so it’s been a pleasure to get this book in my hands, and the response of good poets I trust has been really gratifying.

The Devil's Work

A telling litlle nugget on last night’s news. An irate Labour MP, having received a threat, reproaches Dominic Cummings for the tone of his campaign. He doesn’t offer sympathy or regret, or deny what he’s been doing. “Deliver Brexit” is all he says. It’s simple. Get it done, and this’ll stop, because to Cummings that’s all it is, a temporary expedient to get the result he wants. But he isn’t, to coin a phrase, in control.The nastiness will spread and go on, way beyond Brexit. Cummings may have no use for it, but it will develop a life of its own, just like the Brexit campaign. Farage and Banks didn’t plan for Jo Cox to be killed - it was just an incidental side effect of the xenophobia they encouraged to help them win the vote. All the estimates I’ve seen of what’s likely to follow a no-deal Brexit suggests that things will get much, much worse before they get better, but to Cummings that means nothing at all. Just get it done.

Alternative Views

Every time I say that I devour The Guardian every day somebody suggests that this is a limited taste, and maybe I should look at the alternatives. I do, occasionally. Knowing the Supreme court decision on Tuesday was going to be explosive, I picked up copies next day of the Sun, the Mail and the Express. Hale had said that Johnson’s prorogation of Parliament was “not lawful.” so, they play around with the word “lawful” and come up with this: “What’s lawful about denying 17.4 million Brexit?” (EXPRESS)), or, if you want the cheeky version “ooh, you are lawfukl…but we don’t like you!” Lady Hale was “the ex-barmaid with a spider brooch…the Beyonce of the legal world.” (MAIL) “but it does not change the arithmetic in the Commons” (EXPRESS).

There was a big stress on Johnson’s determination - “My pal Johnson will make great progress claims Trump” (EXPRESS),. “Defiant Boris hits out at Supreme Court ruling…We’ll deliver the will of the people”, but hardly any recognition that he’s behaving like no other Prime Minister has ever behaved before, and that many Tories regard this judgement as a huge embarrassment to their party. Brexit is all that counts; the rest is treachery.

Breaking News

We often get to see news as it happens these days, but it’s not often good. Today, I had the beautiful experience of watching something important happen, before my eyes, exactly as other people saw it for the first time. the 24 hour news coverage of the Supreme Court verdict started with total suspense - Lady Hale was talking, but we couldn’t hear a thing. Luckily, they sorted the problem, and in seconds we were with her, following that careful, patient trail, of an intelligent brain tracing out a complex argument. For once, we hadn’t had advance leaks, wise experts telling us what was about to be said. and none of the wise experts had predicted that it would be this tough, this damning, this unanimous. Obviously, the judges knew thatthis would be controversial, would be disputed, insulted, like everything else so they were very careful to make it considered and responsible - which is a rare treat these days. I’m sure some what happens next will be nasty, but I don’#t care. I’ll treasure this morning all my life.

Chickening Out

Kamila Shamsie, one of my favourite novelists, has been awarded the Nelly Sachs prize - and then had it withdrawn. The reason is that she’s expressed support for the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement against Israel. Explaining their decision, the judges say “This contrasts with the claim of the Nelly Sachs prize to proclaim and exemplify reconciliation among peoples and cultures.”

Back in May, the German parliament labelled the BDS movement as anti-semitic, “reiminiscent of the most terrible chapter in German history.” Their decision was criticised by 60 Jewish and Israeli academics, seeing it a part of a trend. There’s certainly a rise in anti-semitism, but there’s also a massive push by the Jewish lobby to label any opposition to Israeli policies as intrinsically anti—semitic. In her defence, Shamsie refers to Netanyahu’s annexation plans (see my post of Sept 12), and states that “the jury has chosen to withdraw the award from me on the basis of my support for a non-violent campaign to bring pressure on the Israeli government.” The Dortmund authorities refused to release her statement with their own account of what happened.

It’s fraught territory, and giving in may look like playing safe, but it’s a sad abdication of judgement, and a discouragement to writers who want to take on serious issues of human rights.

Whose Brexit Is It anyway?

I know his delivery drives some people mad, but Robert Peston does get good information, and attract interesting characters on to his show. It’s usually scrambled and running ouyt of time, and if I were one of his guests I’d feel cheated that I hadn’t got the chance to say all that I wanted, but as a viewer I usually come away wiser than I started. This week it was, of all people, Nigel Farage. Peston treats him politely, treading a canny line which avoids blustering disapproval and obsequious abdication (which is rare, if you watch others attempting the same trick). But without any melodramatic nonsense, what comes over is massively revealing. First, Farage knows, just knows, that the 17 million people voting for Brexit wanted no deal. Really? It was never around in the campaign, and there must be tons of people out there who voted Leave thinking “Not that. That wasn’t what I voted for.” Second, Farage maintains the “Project Fear” dismissal about predictions, even when they come from an official information source, working for Johnson’s government. not, not a problem, says Nigel. How does he know? He used to be involved in trading for twenty years. There’s lots of ports, tons of opportunity - no problem. I don’t suppose many of his supporters are tuning into Peston to check on the latest arguments, but I for one was not impressed. This whole thing is all about fantasy, and the sooner we wake up the better.

Taking over the West Bank

Netanyahu, facing corruption charges, is desperately fighting for his political life, and if he can win this election that should keep him out of prison. so what’s the surefire way to ramp up the vote? more land. Take over more territory which used to belong to the Palestinians. that ought to do it.

And the trouble is, it will. Who’s going to stop it? there was a time when a UN resolution might have made a difference, but that’s long gone. Israel has trampled over endless UN resolutions, and held on to everything it’s grabbed. Occasionally, with Carter or Obama, there seemed to be hints that the US might exert some pressure in the direction of justice, but not any more. Trump has decided that he’s for Israel, and they know that anything they do will get his support. so much for “the deal of the century”.

If the Palestinians conclude that they’re on their own and might as well do as much damage as they can before they go down, who could blame them? The rest of us have watched and wrung our hands, but not with any effect.

That BoJo Magic

we’ve had a month of Johnson prancing across our screens, shaking hands, making promises, reassuring us that all ifs well. He’s confident that he can unite the country, but for a start he’s worked wonders on the House of commons. suddenly, this shambling collection of disparate forces has acquired an energy, focus and unity nobody dreamed that they possessed. And why? Because Johnson prorogued Parliament, and lied about why he had done so. Because he pretended to negotiate, but offered nothing. Because he tried to bully his members with the threat of expulsion from the party. All cunning master strokes from the Dominic Cummings playbook, and uniformly counterproductive. For the first time in months we have some positive news, and it’s all down to Boris Johnson. Who’d a thunk it?

Chernobyl

Given the dross of later summer TV, I've made an effort to make sure I’ve got alternative viewing, and I’ve just finished a leisurely trawl through the five parts of Chernobyl, pacing myself at one episode a night. You don’t really want more. It;’s heavy stuff, with very few laughs, but it’s seriously and intelligently done, and they’ve put in a massive effort o recreate the site, and the sense of the neighbourhood area, eventually evacuated, leaving only stray pets who have to be shot. Going through the reviews there are occasional niggles about stuff which might not be exactly the same as what happened in real life, but considering it’s a Western look at the intricacies of Russian politics, and a five-hour exploration of widespread suffering and acute illness, it dodges many of the obvious traps with rare skill. some terrific acting, and a sustained sense of wanting to tell a complex story as accurately as possible. I borrowed this set of discs, but it’s something I’ll want to buy for myself and watch again - but not just yet.

Don't Mention the Russians!

Dominic Cummings keeps being referred to as “the architect of Brexit” because be recognised the importance of targetted online advertising, and threw huge amounts of money into it during the last week of the campaign for Vote Leave. And so did Arron Banks, for leave.eu But if you add their combined efforts together, it’s still less than what the Russians were doing. So who really swung the result? This doesn’t come from an obscure radical website. It’s in the report of a Commons select committee, and why more people aren’t talking about it I cannot understand. If you want a fuller picture, read Putin’s Brexit elsewhere on this website - there’s a link on the Home page.

The Amazon Ablaze

it’s a world crisis, in which the Amazon rainforest, the lungs of the world, is being destroyed by a series of raging fires. Bolsonaro, the Brazilian president, who has been openly encouraging deforestation in the name of economic development, blames the fires on the ecologists who oppose his policy. Your first thought is, he’s stupid. He assumes that everyone has the same amorality as he does, because it’s obvious that anyone who seriously cares for the condition of the forest wouldn’t set fire to it. But your second, grimmer thought, is no. He doesn’t believe that. He’s just saying it, knowing it isn’t true, because it doesn’t matter what he says, or what anyone else says. words don’t matter, they simply fill the space. That’s how Putin operates. That’s how Trump operates. Why should he be any different, just because he’s not a superpower? Welcome to the world of 2019.

Teaching Poetry

Ever since I retired from teaching I’ve been less and less keen to read about education. Government initiatives, cuts in funding, the failure to support young teachers - it always seems to be bad news. But here’s a book which changes all that, and is full of insight, commitment and imagination. I went to a workshop Kate Clanchy ran in Birmingham twenty years ago, and was really impressed. I’ve bought her three poetry collections since then, and read her novel. i had heard about her work at Oxford Spires Academy, where she’d helped teenagers from all sorts of backgrounds, none of them posh, write fabulous poems and win competitions. so now here’s her book about poetry, teaching poetry, teaching kids, being a parent choosing a school…everything you might ever have wondered about to do with education. It’s called “Some kids I taught, and what they taught me” and it’s the most inspiring book I’ve read this year. Get it from the library, give it to teacher friends for Christmas, donate a copy to your local school - it needs to be in as many hands as possible, as soon as possible - just wonderful.

Binge Watching

Back in the day, you discovered a good TV series, and then watched the episodes unfold, week after week. that’s how I watched Talking to a Stranger, The Singing Detective and, only this year, Years and Years. But now there’s the dreaded indulgence of binge-watching, where all the parts are made available straight away. I decided I wasn’t really interested in Fosse/Verdon, the story of choreographer/director Bob Fosse and one of his wives. But then I read a review which told me that (a) that Michelle Williams was in it and (b) that it was really good. (In my experience, those two things usually go together). It’s brilliant. Clever, thoughtful, complicated - you jump around in time, and the relationship between the two lead characters develops all the time, but it’s tremendous, one of the best things I’ve seen this year. so yes, I’ll confess. I watched all eight episodes within a week (on iplayer), and almost wish I hadn’t. But whichever way you tackle it, don;'‘t let the chance slip by.

Women on TV

time was, people complained that Tv was dominated by men - producers, writers, actors, and so it was. But some things change for the better, and channel 4s “I am…” series is really good news. It’s a gorgeous idea, for a start. Male writer gets together with female actor and says “what do you care about?” They talk, and work out an idea for a one-hour drama, which he then writes and she stars in. Given that the three actors are Vicki McClure, Samantha Morton and Gemma Chan, the results are very much worth watching. They’re very different, and some better than others (I thought Gemma Chan’s was terrific) but streets ahead of your average TV drama fodder. At a time when there really isn’t that much being transmitted that I want to watch, this has been a godsend. Catch them on All 4 while you can - “I am Nicola…Kirsty…Hannah.”

Johnson the Diplomat

when Boris johnson was campaigning to become PM, his team were very clear - tell them you saved London, but DON’T MENTION THE FOREIGN OFFICE. They knew that his time as Foreign Secretary was a total disaster, and that his best chance of winning was to hope that nobody remembered that. But now he’s in charge, we get an immediate reminder. In the first few days of his premiership, he made token trips to Scotland, Ireland, Wales. Wasn’t always welcome, didn’t make any progress, but at least he flew the flag. but in Europe, nothing. Despite claiming that he would attempt to make a new deal, he’s had no contact with senior EU figures, and is clearly terrified of being filmed talking to them, and then coming back with nothing. That’s Theresa May territory, and he’s steering clear.

But all the Brexit theory says that once we’re out, we’ll make exciting new deals with our partners. Oh no we won’t, not if we treat them like dirt. Whatever he says, Johnson is the ultimate entitled Englishman, convinced of his own superiority, and totally unable to see how he looks to other people. Which would be fine, if he were an isolated lunatic. as our Prime Minister, he’s going to make us pay, for a long time.

The Great Hack

Just as we’re consigning Cambridge Analytica to history, here comes another treat from Netflix - The Great Hack. This does a wonderful education job in explaining exactly how digital advertising was targetted during the Brexit campaign, aimed at a small number of undecided voters with impressively precise effect. But it also sets the context of CA’s work - the links with military spending, the gun for hire mentality which means that they were happy to go all over the globe, delivering election results for various dictators, often through dirty tricks, bribery and persuading people that it wasn’t worth their while to vote. They have a CA guy who speaks rather sadly about how unlucky it was that CA happened to be the firm that got caught, but when you look in detail at what they were doing (and at what they tried to hide) it’s very clear that this is a powerful effective way of twisting democracy, and we don’t have anything like the machinery we need to control it. So, just when you thought you had quite enough already, there’s another reason to be gloomy…