Change of Gear

I always have a number of library books on the go, and of course I enjoy some more than others. Yesterday I went into Telford, and saw on their new books shelf "Normal People" by Sally Rooney. I'd reserved it already from the Wenlock library, but hey, why wait if you don't have to.

I had a nighttime novel I was in the middle on - William Boyd's  "Sweet Caress". It's decent, readable, interesting - covering a huge watche of history, with a neat use of photogrphs running through the book - the central character is a photographer. But it's a man pretending to write as a woman without total conviction, and it feels a bit pedestrian.

Finding myself awake in the middle of the night, I pottered downstairs and gave myself a treat - started "Normal People." Oh, wow. The electricity of reading a writer who really knows what she's doing.  The reviews all raved about this, and they're not wrong. Utterly convincing, compulsive reading - this is the real stuff. It'll break my heart when I finish it, but it's not going to take me long.   

Mother's Day

Lots of hysteria about Bodyguard, which is fine. I'm a big Mercurio fan, and will happily watch anything he's created. But won't someone say just how clear, careful and intelligent Mother's Day was? the story of the Warrington bombings, and what followed from them. Irt actually suggested a closer link between the parents of the teenager who died and the Irish mother who campaigned as a result, but that's OK. There was nothing articicial or contrived about this, just a measured, slow look at what was happening to the people involved.

for which you need really good actors. Anna Maxwell Martin, Vicky McClure and Daniel Mays is a good start, but the whole thing oozed class and care, avoiding all the plentiful booby traps into which a quicker, louder, shallower production might have fallen. We didn't have to watch people endlessly sobbing to the sound of violins. But they did turn away, restrain themselves, disagree, and have moments of utter helplessness - just like real people. Nobody else is making much fuss about this, but I will - catch it while you can. 

The Never Ending Story

And on it goes, seemingly or ever. Will Labour sign up to the "internationally agreed" definition, with all its examples? Was Corbyn's comment about irony as bad, or worse, as Powell's speech in 1968? Frothy nonsense, so far as I'm concerned. If there's serious anti-semitism in the Labour party then it needs dealing wih, specifically and rationally, but neither of these sideshows help a scrap. that always say "internationally accepted" - but it;'s never "universally accepted." Why? Because some quite sensible people - numerous lawyers, the Home Affairs select committee, have serious reservations about it. 

Ooh, look. In 2013 Corbyn made a clumsy comment in defence of a Palestinian's art work, criticised by some Israelis. Does Oliver shacks seriously think that's on a par with Enoch Powell? Was Corbyn making a national appeal for people to live in fear of an entire racial group? I don't think so.  

Meanwhile, there's some serious news happening. Israel is calling itself a Jewish state more narrowly and aggressively than ever before. Trump is cancelling desperately needed aid to Palestinians, to persuade them to agree to whatever arrangement Israel plans to impose. Any of that worth putting on the news?  

Rites of Passage

It's been so long. But now Grayson Perry's back, and it's as if he had never been away. He's one of the real TV naturals, talks well, listens well, somehow knows eactly how to react, even with the most potent material - and some of this is heartbreaking. He's looking at funerals, how people face the death of themselves and their loved ones, and how they might devise new rituals of their own. He negotiates this tricky territory with huge charm, sometimes just listening, often laughing, but never imposing himself over the people he's dealing with, always encouraging them to find the words, find the actions, which will help them deal with what they're facing. Utterly uplifting. Don't take my word for it. Watch it. 

Keeping Faith

It's a sad science, working out when and why you give up on a TV series. Keeping Faith looked promising for a while - ravishing settings, camera lingering lovingly on Eve Myles while music played, a steady arc of disintegration carefully outlined...but the simple things were missing, like common sense and plausibility. The police stuff, the child care stuff is deeply unconvincing, and we've seen these things done well so many times that it really shows. Faith's talent as a lawyer seems to consist of looking smart and talking earnestly, which results in some totally incredible courtroom triumphs. she does, of course, cock things up, and one episode finishes with a client's treasured garden totally vandalised, mainly because of her cocky confidence in her own infallibility. "I'm sorry", she intones, "I'm so, so sorry." But in the next episode we don't go back again, to see how bad the damage is. We move on to the next climax, the next crisis for Faith, because she's the only thing the writers think or care about.

Tonight was the parting of the ways. Faith has a crucial hearing in the afternoon, when she might lose her children. She needs character witnesses, so we watch her work through three possibilities, each of which turns her down. Harrowing stuff. But this is on the morning of the actual hearing. Even if they wanted to testify for her, there;'s no way that they'd be available. It's just total nonsense, start to finish. some nice moments, but not enough. 

Vandalism of Art

Are we worse than we used to be? Are we worse than the others? I know I'm getting old and jaundiced, but right now, so far as the UK is concerned, my answers to both the above would be "Yes". The occasion of this is the art project, The List, which has been exhibited in Liverpool , and vandalised - twice.

The List features the names of over 34,000 migrants who died trying to reach Europe. It has been displayed in Berlin, Istanbul, Basel and Athens. Only in Liverpool has it been torn down, and then when it was replaced it was torn down again. Somebody really doesn't want to have this stuff displayed. The organisers will leave it up as it is, with a  notice explaining what's happened, and that may be the best response. All the same, I can't help thinking that tells us once again what a nasty, divided place the UK has become.   

Diplomacy a la Donald Trump

Gradually a pattern emerges. Donald tweets, gets the headline, says why he's the greatest. Over the following days, gradual rumours leak out about what's actually happened. So, this week there's a dust-up between Trump and Erdogan, resulting in massive sanctions which will seriously hit the Turkish economy, and from which many of Erdogan's citizens will suffer far more than he will. 

And now we get the background, from sources in Ankara. Yes, it is about the American bishop, held by the Turks, who Trumps wants to be freed. He and Erdogan had discussed this, thought they had come to an agreement, but now Trump thinks that Erdogan has broken that agreement - so he's really hard-pedalling the sanctions. with conventional diplomacy you'd go back tot he record, the minutes, which would tell what had been agreed. But this is the great deal-maker, who can do it on his own, so pen-pushers would only get in the way...So far as the Turkish economy is concerned, it's a really expensive way to do business. 

(But also another quiet little vindication of The Guardian, those remorseless peddlers of fake news, who actually provide us with the information we eed.)  

Johnson for PM?

No question. These are different times, and we have to adapt. I had thought that Boris Johnson's recent antics must disqualify him from any serious involvement in a future leadership campaign. He mutters about polishing a turd, then goes along to Chequers, goes along with the deal, proposes a toast to Theresa May (whatever's going, he has to have a leading role). No, he says, he won't be resigning. Then David Davis resigns. Blimey - has he made a mistake? He sits at home, pondering, He should be at a Foreign Office function, receiving foreign guests. Doesn't tell them he's not coming, sits writing his resignation letter - but also gets his favourite photographer in to record what is, let's face it, a moment of Churchillian destiny. 

For vanity, inconsistency and bad planning that would be hard to beat. And yet, it seems that in the betting odds this little pantomime takes him from No. 4 in the running up to No.1. The fact that Jacob Rees-Mogg and donald Trump think he's excellent PM material only makes it worse.

So now it's serious. His Telegraph article makes apparently light-hearted comments about veiled Muslim women resembling postboxes and/or bankrobbers. Will he apologise? Certainly not, because he's put out a marker that he wants the racist vote, and he can't let them down. Will more Muslim women be insulted and abused as a result of this? Almost certainly. does he care about anything other than his own advancement? You decide.  

Magnetic Footage

It's a while since I watched a cricket match with any interest, but the highlights of the last day of this year;s first test against India were totally compulsive. It wasn't perfect cricket. Both sides made mistakes, and it could easily have gone the other way - but it's those tight margins which make it riveting. It's at moments like that that the star performers stand out - and I can't be the only person of my age of thereabouts for whom Ben Stokes is a reminder of Botham in his prime: all that hunger effort and determination.

 

Which brings us all back down to earth when see the footage of the night-club attack for which he must be facing a prison sentence - and yes, there's the same determination and hunger, the refusal to be diverted into wiser, safer alternatives. It's a highly combustible material is male aggression, with huge potential both ways.   

Travels in Trumpland

Seeing advance clips of Ed Balls in a wrestling costume wasn't that enticing. we've seen him prat about before, and it's not an edifying sight. Press reports indicated that Yvette Cooper (who must be wearily familiar with this territory by now) had suggested that there might be red lines which he should be careful bot to cross, and maybe this was one of them...So I wasn't inclined to watch Travels in Trumpland.  

But I was wrong. It's terrific. the silly stuff in thw wrestlibng outfit was actually part of a very intelligent analysis of the parallels between Trump's approach to PR and the atmosphere generated in a wrestling arena - and Ball's expert guide, himself a thoughtful Trump suippurter, agreed totally on the closeness of the similarities. it's not surprising that Balls has all kinds of reservation about Trump, but he doesn't try to thrust these down the throats aoof the very varied and fascinating Trump voters with whom he comes into contact. To my surprise, he has something to Grayson Perry's talent for simply getting on with people, talking to them and listening to what comes back, which make for much more interesting viewing. You watch this series of documentaries, and you end up wiser. It really is as good as that.   

Government Breakdown

We are in serious trouble. We've always half apologised for the ancient traditions on which Westminster relies - it's just history, not really harmful, a little bit of tradition...But one of those got shredded this week, with the revelation that a Tory whip was systematically trying to persuade MPs to break their pairing agreements. Never mind what you said, never mind about future trust, just ditch the deal and that way we win tonight's vote. Short-term cynicism rules, and stuff any notion of a national interest.

 

Add to that Dominic Cummings' chirpy refusal to attend a select committee's invitation to explain his consistent deceit over the nature of the Brexit campaign, and you have to ask who's in charge of the asylum. Are there rules? Are there consequences if they're broken? Does anything matter, or is it just hanging on to as much power as you can, for as long as you can, before the wheels fall off and somebody else takes over? I read a brilliant book a few years back called "the Blunders of our Governments", analysing the short-term nature of decisions by governments (of both main parties). Nothing's been learnt. We're heading in the opposite direction, at increasing speed.  

Nicaragua

Add up the trouble spots, and things are bleak. Yemen, Syria, Iran, Israel/Occupied Territories, Zimbabwe, Turkey - let alone the varied horrors of Trump and Brexit. But for me there's a further heartbreak, occasioned by my daughter's links with Nicaragua. Way back in the last century she opted to write about Nicaragua as an A level History topic, and she's been absorbed in it ever since. she's been there numerous times, read about it, written about it, worked there - and now she's watching helplessly as it tears itself apart.

Yet again it's the students who are at the centre of it - young people demonstrating for their freedom and their future, in the face of repression by police, army and various gangs of government-sponsored militia. And against them is Ortega, the current dictator and autocrat - but also the charismatic Sandinista leader who forty years ago was on the other side, doing what they're doing. He's got used to power, his ditched his ideals for deals - some of them really sordid - and he doesn't plan to budge an inch.  community leaders and the church are trying to broker some kind of peace, but it's really hard to see how this might have a happy ending, and external powers who might have intervened in the past are far too busy elsewhere.   

Shake It All About

"You put your right leg in, you take your right leg out..." so the Boris Johnson hokey cokey continues, as arbitrary as ever. First he's proposing a toast to Theresa May, celebrating the chequers deal that they all agree on. and no, he won't be resigning. but hang on a minute. David Davis is resigning. (Only because he's Brexit minister, and he can't conscientiously implement this. He's not criticising May, or objecting to the agreement).  So suddenly Johnson looks as if he's missed and opportunity, so he discovers a deep conscientious objection  - "can't sing this song with conviction"  and resigns.

And what a palaver he makes of it. He simply fails to turn up at a Foreign Office functions he's supposed to be chairing - no explanation, no apology. He's sat at home composing his letter of resignation in splendid isolation - unless you count the pet photographer who's been invited to record this Churchillian occasion. You couldn't make it up.

It's an entirely predictable climax to the erratic, vain procession which has been Johnon's career over the last three years. What makes it chilling is that apparently this immediately takes him to the favourite position in the betting about who succeeds May. OK, so Trump and Rees-Mogg both think Johnson is Prime Minister material. Who else could possible agree with them? which MPs seriously look forward to the prospect of sitting in the House of commons with this charlatan as their leader?     

Reporting Trump's First Year

The New York Times, way back at the start of 2017, makes this brave decision that they'll let a TV documentary crew film what goes on inside their offices, as they work out how to respond to the tsunami of news coverage that's implicit in the Trump presidency. In four one-hour episodes we get the fruit of that - a wonderful, lively portrait of intelligent professionals at work, getting the stories but also working out just exactly how the rules have changed. and then there's the impact of Google, and loss of revenue, the need for the paper to reorganise - the only way they can hire the extra investigative reporters they need is to cut down on the editorial staff they used to need when digital was a dream. Lots of people on opposite sides of the fence, both being totally rational. And then there's the buzz of Twitter, to which many reporters are openly addicted. They're smart, they're fast, they're popular - but it isn't always the cleverest way for the paper to be seen...Lots of tough decisions there. It's a wonderful series. Maybe the most chilling moment is watching a Trump rally, where he's directing the crowd's attention to the lying scum of the press - tantamount to urging on a lynch mob. We see the reporters, familiar faces by now, nervously packing up their gear, because this might be the moment when they get attacked. Dangerous times.      

Putin's Kleptocracy

No, not a title that leaps into your mind. I only found it by chance, in the obituary columns, where they were paying tribute to the painstaking work of its author, Karen Dawisha. An Ohio professor of political philosophy, she's mad it her job to track the roots and history of Putin's rise to power. the results are devastating. Not brilliantly readable, to be honest, and certainly not lively, but careful and detailed. she makes a convincing case that Putin has always been about his own power and aggrandisement - and that early on he was very much at risk of prosecution, until he got to the point where he could use his power to make that decreasingly likely. the concern for Russia's status and dignity is all carefully calculated, as is the promotion of friends and former colleagues into a network designed to secure control and wealth in their hands. It's very hard to see how this might change. Four hundred and forty pages, endless notes and footnotes, a monumanet to courage, intelligence and hard work.     

Rock Star for a Day

It's been a busy month for poetry performances, with two open-air gigs in the last fortnight, and a third today, at the Tenbury Music Festival. This looked like a bit of a gamble, with spoken word performance (and that means light, accessible performance) trying to nose its way into a programme dominated by music. Fine in principle, but what if the main stage is occupied by an amplified band, at the same time as the minor tent across the same field features a would be poet? Yup, they mainly get drowned out, which is what happened a lot of the time. but we had a loyal huddle of listeners - get close enough, and you do get to hear what's going on - who seemed to enjoy the poems and/or admire our persistence. As I'm reading my Gareth Southgate poem, I can see this guy down below, nodding and smiling. He turns out to be the compere of the whole event. "Great poem", he says afterwards, "but it's wasted here." Thanks a bunch, I think, but it wasn't me that scheduled it. but he goes on. "Would you do it on the main stage?" So twenty minutes later i'm tottering up the steps to the main stage, waiting for an enthusiastic gang of local rockers to complete their explosive finale, so that I can deliver my Southgate eulogy to the assembled masses. Not sure if it's exactly what they were waiting for, but I enjoyed it. 

Football Heaven

And the heatwave goes on, apparently for ever. My second poetry outdoor gig of the week involves reading my Jo Cox poem at the Great Get Together picnic, on Much Wenlock Church Green on Sunday afternoon. It lasts from 2.00 till 5.00, but I reckon if I produce lunch early I can just sneak in the first half of the England v. Panama game before I go - 1.00 pm - 1.45. Oh boy. As good a forty-five minute stretch of football as I've seen any England team produce - so many different kinds of good, of thought, of skill. A five-nil lead at half-time - I don't ever remember that. OK, so Panama weren't great, and they moaned about the two (perfectly clear) penalties which were awarded against them, delaying the taking of the kick, in a way which might have worried you in previous years. Not Harry Kane. Bides his time, and when the ref is ready, blasts it into the top left corner of the net. Twice. But there's also Jesse Lingard's sweet goal, all flowing movement and sudden power. Not to mention the hilariously clever rehearsed free-kick routine which produced Stones' second goal. we might win the World cup and we probably won't, but we've already had more pleasure than we could reasonably expect. Thanks, guys.   .   

Summer Solstice

As Hannibal Smith used to say on "The A Team" (a kids' Tv programme, way back), "I love it when a plan comes together." Back in January, Katherine Swift and I started to plan a programme of poetry and music, to be performed in her garden, celebrating the summer solstice. It was to mark the nine hundredth anniversary of Morville Church, and featured the harpist David Watkins - who I'sd guess is a friend of hers, but also very eminent and skilful. I was coordinating the poems, arranged in four seasonal sections, with the help of five other members of Border Poets. That's a lot of work, collating choices, typing out copies, producing scripts and making arrangements, but I quite like that stuff - as well as hating it when the proper precautions haven't been taken. This time it worked perfectly, with the bonus of good summer weather. We didn't get paid, but we did get a marvellous free lunch, set on tables in a small garden, with robins flitting by to help themselves from whichever bits of the feast they fancied. Very definitely a good day.    

Bloody BT

I guess I've just been lucky. It doesn't feel like it now, but as it happens I've had very few computer crises, compared with others I know. But today it's my turn, and it feels like the end of the world. for no apparent reason, a little box pops up on my e-mail, asking me to put my password in. I do, it takes in my answer, and then pops up again,  again and again. And if I try to ignore it, it won't let me send e-mails, or see the new ones that have arrived.

I go onto My BT, where they're very keen on chats. Chats are exchanges with people at the other end of the line, but written on the screen, not on a phone line (cutting out any exasperation over failing to understand Indian/Pakistani accents). So far so rational, but the three guys I chat with each assure me that they will definitely solve my problem. but they don't. After a total of two hours spent getting nowhere, the last one admits defeat, and passes me on to an engineer - at least, human interchange over a phone line. After ten minutes, he tells me he can;'t solve the problem, and the only solution is for BT to send me a new password and pin number, which must be by post, and will take seven days. Just brilliant. suddenly the plusnet ad campaign makes perfect sense, and i realise why Bt is bottom of the league so far as responding to complaints is concerned.    

Gareth Southgate

So, the England football lads are off to the World Cup, and for once it doesn't feel like an immediate humiliation. It's partly the dire record of the past, which has helped discourage the sillier predictions of the media. It's partly the performances of the team which have - admittedly against some fairly ordinary opposition - produced good results and moments of decent football, accurate passing at pace, along the ground, sometimes resulting in goals.

But a lot of this is down to Gareth Southgate who, in the hardest job in the english-speaking world, seems not to have put a foot wrong. He's set down a way of playing within which his players seemed comfortable. He's taken some tough selection deicsiions, always backing quality against reputation, and often youth against experience. And he's created a sane, communal atmosphere in which the players seems happy and the media have so far failed to wreck. (But give them time, give them time...) So far then, really hopeful, and such a refreshing change from the nonsense of previous years. We might even bear to watch while England are still in with a chance.