The FT's "Lunch with..." column is one of the finest feature series in British journalism. The format is simple: take someone interesting or noteworthy to lunch, get them talking in an informal way about their work and life - food is a great disarmer - and report on the conversation, weaving in the details of the meal. Much can be revealed about a person by the manner in which they address a waiter or a plate of pasta. You will have your own favourite examples; mine include Robert Caro and Esther Duflo.
The FT's latest lunch is with Nick Candy, of the absurdly successful Candy brothers, two lads from Surrey who have become rich and (in certain circles) famous by developing property for millionaires and billionaires.
This particular 'Lunch' has been feted on Twitter as a subtle takedown of its subject. In fact, it's anything but subtle (if it really was subtle, there wouldn't be so many people proclaiming it as such). A hatchet rather than a stilletto is used to make Candy look like a pushy, shallow, boastful spiv.
But if you subtract the interviewer's evident animosity and scrape away the spin he puts on everything, it's hard to see why we should judge Candy as harshly as he clearly wants us to. The Candys didn't come from a rich or well-connected family. They made their fortune by the application of effort, energy, ingenuity and chutzpah, and as far as we know they haven't harmed anyone or bent any laws along the way. They have built a solid business: when the crash came, they came through.
Nick Candy has married someone who is by all accounts a strong-minded woman, and he is, as even this interviewer feels compelled to note, smitten by her. Though clearly a hyper-busy guy, his interactions with the waiter seem polite enough (real arseholes don't say, "Just excuse me one second..." when a call comes in). He acknowledges that a large part of his success is down to luck, rather than his own brilliance. Put it this way: Candy is no Donald Trump. (And if you want to hear about some really shitty interpersonal skills, read the Steve Jobs biography.)
Yes, Candy is flash - the interviewer uses the phrase "wide boy". He has the temerity to be wearing an expensive suit. He offers a long list of the cars he owns, namedrops like crazy, and (perhaps) overplays his relationship with the FT's editor. He's unforgivably vulgar too, ordering a glass of white wine for his lunch companion even though the interviewer ordered steak (although if the interviewer didn't want white wine, presumably he might have said so). None of this, of course, is evidence that he's unpleasant or morally degenerate.
What this really comes down to is that Candy doesn't possess, and hasn't felt it necessary to acquire, the manners and sensibility of the educated middle class. That makes it easy to despise his success, a temptation that we in Britain are always prone to - even journalists at the FT. In the week of Mrs Thatcher's death, this interview, and the reaction to it, are a useful reminder that in this country class still trumps money.
NOTE: It's not that I don't like takedowns, it's just that they have to be genuinely subtle to work, so subtle that you can imagine the subject reading it and nodding in approval, like this lunch with the conservative sociologist Charles Murray. Or take this, with Sean Parker. Do you come away from it thinking Parker is a prat? Maybe. But you may also think he's rather likeable, or a mix of the two. Either way, you don't feel the interviewer straining to impose his judgement on you. What both of these pieces do very successfully is convey a vivid impression of their subject's presence, which ought to be the highest aspiration of any interviewer. The reader should feel he has been sitting across the table from the interviewee. Pulling that off takes a high degree of almost novelistic writing skill. Hatchet jobs are easier.
I've avoided much of the Thatcher coverage, not because I have particularly strong feelings either way (in short, I agree with Hugo Young that the changes she wrought were, on balance, more good than bad). But one of the best pieces I have read was a personal recollection from Ferdinand Mount, a former aide to Thatcher who went on to become a journalist and author. It's unashamedly affectionate but Mount is a perceptive observer and a good writer, and he gives us a vivid sense of the Thatcher presence.
He also makes you think about how important was Thatcher's attention to the minutae of her job. Politics is often presented as if it's all about the exciting stuff: big ideas and strategic maneuvers. But much if not most of it is about attention to the dull detail, as this government has repeatedly discovered to its cost.
One of the things I admire about Thatcher is that she grasped the importance of the mundane. She's often presented as a "visionary" leader and she certainly had one or two big guiding philosophical principles (she was a classic hedgehog in that respect). But she wasn't really interested in political philosophy. She was interested - tenaciously, ferociously interested - in the details of everyday life: from the hem of a dress (her mother was a dressmaker), to the price of milk, to how people paid their rent.
This translated to a vice-like grip of the kind of policy details that other politicians would find boring or beneath them and leave to civil servants (which would leave them terribly exposed if they were picked on in cabinet or ever found themselves sitting next to her in the Commons dining room). Actually she was less of a visionary than a geek (chemistry at Cambridge [UPDATE - talking of detail, it was Oxford, as Erin points out]) - a geek with attitude.
In an increasingly complex world, we need more geeks in power; more politicians who enjoy sweating the details. For all that I remain an admirer of Tony Blair, I kind of wish it had been Thatcher chivvying the Americans, during the build-up to the Iraq war, for details of their post-invasion plans.
Anyway, here's Mount, who manages to make you think a little differently about not one, but two of the great world leaders of the last century in one unprepossessing paragraph:
When I came to work for her again 20 years on, as head of her policy unit, I am afraid I took an unholy delight in watching her chew up a junior minister who had not done his prep and could not explain the difference between the powers and the duties of a drainage authority. Curiously, the only time I ever met Ronald Reagan, he talked in mind-numbing detail about an equally down-to-earth subject: garbage disposal in California. The alliance between this odd couple, one a humourless workaholic, the other a notoriously relaxed charmer, was not only based on ideology but on attention to the realities of life.
Philip Collins, in The Times (£), has written one of those columns that ought to be handed to the relevant party leader with the words, "Just go and do what it says here". The leader in this case being Ed Miliband (actually, if Mr Miliband wants to win the next election he could do a lot worse than treating PC's collected columns as an instruction manual). I can't liberate the whole thing from behind the paywall but the key paragraph is this one:
The first thing Labour has to do is to counter Mr Osborne’s argument that these welfare cuts are “inevitable”. This is the line of a man who has thrown you out of a balloon and told you it is inevitable you will hit the ground. But Labour has no plan and so nobody listens. If Mr Miliband had even a rudimentary account of the cuts he was prepared to make then there might be an audience for his protests at the cuts that he thinks are unjust.
Labour needs a plan on public spending that goes beyond "Don't let those heartless Tory bastards cut everything," which is basically where they are. Right now, the voters are in the mood for a government run by heartless bastards, as long as those heartless bastards are considered more competent (or less incompetent) than the other lot. The next election won't be won on who is nicest.
Collins goes on to suggest a couple of policy postions that Labour might adopt to prove it's taking the responsibilities of governing in austere times seriously. One is to limit child benefit to the first two or three children. The other is to lift the exemption that NHS has from the cuts. The drastic cuts to other departments are only made necessary because of the commitment Cameron made, to get elected, not to cut the NHS budget, which represents 40% of public spending.The exemption is a crazy policy, in policy terms. Politically, it was smart.
Labour has a different political problem than Cameron did, of course. As Collins puts it, Labour could "create more room for its anger" by taking tough positions like this. Of course, lifting the NHS exemption would enable the Tories to point at Labour and say, "They want to cut your beloved health service." But this kind of attack would only redound to Labour's benefit. It is the perfect example of a policy that works for one party but not for another.
Policies are never just about policy. They are signals - and the meaning of a signal depends on who is sending it. The signal that this kind of policy sends about Labour would be a very powerful one. It would kill the Tory claim that Labour hasn't got a plan to deal with the debt. It would vaporise the perception that Labour only wants to spend and borrow.
Even better, it's good policy.
Along with The Economist and The Telegraph, the best obituaries can regularly be found at the New York Times, particularly those written by the brilliant Margalit Fox (read everything by her). This week she tells us about the life and work of John Gumperz, a professor of linguistics. This is how the piece opens:
The conflict hinged on a single word: “gravy.”
The place was Heathrow Airport, the time the mid-1970s. The airport had recently hired a group of Indian and Pakistani women to work in its employee cafeteria, and trouble had arisen between them and the British baggage handlers they served.
The baggage handlers complained that the servers were rude, and the servers complained that the baggage handlers were discriminating against them. Neither group knew why the other felt the way it did.
Fox goes on to tell us that Gumperz was one of the first linguists to get interested in how people used language in their every day lives; at how we routinely encode layers of subtle social and cultural meanings into our conversation while barely realising we are doing so. This is how she closes out the piece:
Summoned to Heathrow that mid-’70s day, tape recorder in hand, Professor Gumperz discovered the following: when diners ordered meat, they were asked if they wanted gravy. The English women who had previously worked behind the counter had posed the question with a single word — “Gravy?” — uttered, per cultural convention, with rising intonation.
When the Indian and Pakistani women joined the staff, they too asked the question with a single word. But in keeping with their cultural conventions, they uttered it with falling intonation: “Gravy.”
Professor Gumperz played the recorded exchanges for diners and staff members. His explanation of the subtle yet powerful difference in intonation, and the cultural meaning it carried, helped the groups achieve a mutual understanding.
“He pointed out that the rising intonation versus falling intonation made it a very different statement, even though the word was the same,” Professor Tannen said. “So rising intonation sounded like, ‘Would you like gravy?’ And falling intonation sounded like: ‘This is gravy. Take it or leave it.’ ”
This is Io (pronounced "Eye-oh" - Greek nymph, mistress of Zeus, Queen of Egypt, moon of Jupiter - it's quite a resume for one so young).
Less than a month old, she does very little except sleep, cry, and excrete. Yet somehow, despite this limited repertoire, she is utterly, irresistibly loveable. One can read all the evolutionary biology one wants and still find this a mysterious and beautiful thing.
We begin our lives convinced of our own omnipotence. Io is a chubby tyrant: driven, hedonistic, imperious - and constantly, violently disappointed in her staff (that is, her parents). I love how impervious she is to her own helplessness - a little Napoleon, marooned on Saint Helena, commanding armies in her mind. She hasn't remotely come to terms with the way things don't happen exactly when and as she wants.
Even if I could, I wouldn't tell her that this is about as good as it gets.
Like most people I find the whole Leveson debate about as exciting as Slough, but when the government published its draft royal charter last week my interest was aroused by its opening declaration:
TO ALL TO WHOM THESE PRESENTS SHALL COME, GREETING!
Isn't that terrific? I'm thinking of introducing all my emails like this, e.g:
TO ALL TO WHOM THESE PRESENTS SHALL COME, GREETING!
Shall I get something for dinner tonight?
Of course, the whole idea of a Royal Charter is jarringly anachronistic, which is why I like it (this works as a rough summary of my view on the survival of the monarchy) but even putting aside what we might call the macro-anachro, that ringing phrase is really something. It takes us right back to the Middle Ages, to a time when the very act of writing things down felt new and strange.
In the twelfth century, when literacy was an arcane skill, a secretary to the Archbishop of Canterbury called John of Salisbury attempted to explain what writing was for: "Fundamentally letters are shapes indicating voices...Frequently they speak voicelessly the utterances of the absent."
As James Gleick puts it (in his excellent book, The Information), at that time "the idea of writing was still entangled with the idea of speaking." It was disorienting and confusing to think that words, meaning, and ideas could leap free of temporal constraints; that there could be such a thing as utterances of the absent.
When we're adapting to new technologies we use the habits of the practices they're replacing or modifying as comfort blankets (it's why we still click on images of paper on a "desktop"). So it was with writing, the medium through which more and more legal and governmental business was being conducted when John was alive. Those composing formal documents like charters or deeds felt the need to address an invisible audience as if they were there, in the room. Hence phrases like "Oh! All ye who shall have heard this and shall have seen!" and, of course, the one above, whose resemblance to a town crier's call is enhanced by the use of capital letters and an exclamation mark. The words "these presents" refer, not to gifts, but to the physical presence of the document in which the words being read are contained. Many charters even ended with the word "Goodbye" - a convention that the government's Royal Charter doesn't follow, sadly.
Nick Bilton is a technology reporter and author of a book called I Live In The Future and Here's How It Works (which sounds a little like something Chris Morris would say to introduce a report on The Day Today). He's written an interesting but flawed piece for the New York Times about the etiquette of digital communication.
In brief, Bilton's message is, "Don't waste my time". Email and text, he argues, demand brevity and economy, and the culling of all superfluous gestures like saying "Hello" at the top of an email. As for voicemail - well, don't even bother:
My father learned this lesson last year after leaving me a dozen voice mail messages, none of which I listened to. Exasperated, he called my sister to complain that I never returned his calls. “Why are you leaving him voice mails?” my sister asked. “No one listens to voice mail anymore. Just text him.”
My mother realized this long ago. Now we communicate mostly through Twitter.
Presumably Bilton includes these charming glimpses of his family life to reinforce the perception that he lives in the future, because they don't inspire great confidence in his communication skills, or indeed in his not-being-an-asshole skills, in the present. Anyone who proudly boasts that he taught his father a lesson in communication by consistently ignoring his attempts to communicate, or that he has successfully reduced his conversations with his mother to 140-character text bursts, may not be the right person to advise on how to make friends and influence people.
One of the things Bilton objects to is people asking others for easily searchable information, such as what the weather is like where they are. He interviews a like-minded acquaintance, Barratunde Thurston, to reinforce his point:
[Thurston] said people often asked him on social media where to buy his book, rather than simply Googling the question. You’re already on a computer, he exclaimed. “You’re on the thing that has the answer to the thing you want to know!”
Yeah, like duh, what an idiot for asking me about my book! I suppose there are people who genuinely think like Thurston, but most of them are adolescent boys and aspergy adults. Most of us would feel flattered that someone had asked.
The problem here isn't just that Bilton unintentionally comes off as rather rude (in real life, I'm sure he's perfectly lovely) but that his argument betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of communication. Writing about computers a lot, he assumes communication is all about the transfer of information from one hard drive to another. That being so, the more efficient the transfer is, the better. Superfluities must be ruthlessly rooted out.
But of course, humans are not hard drives, and our communication is about more than information transfer. Often, the non-informational component of a message is much more important than its content. Linguistics refer to phatic expression: expressions whose social function is more important than what they actually say. Those annoying questions ("Where can I buy your book?") aren't information requests, they're attempts to connect. As a British person, I know full well that conversations about the weather have very little to do with the weather.
Here's Ian McEwan, writing movingly about his mother, and how he used to get irritated by the silly things she said:
"Look at all them cows." And then later, "Look at them cows and that black one. He looks daft, dud'n he?" "Yes, he does." When I was 18, on one of my infrequent visits home, resolving yet again to be less surly, less distant, repeated conversations of this kind would edge me towards silent despair, or irritation, and eventually to a state of such intense mental suffocation, that I would sometimes make excuses and cut my visit short.
"See them sheep up there. It's funny that they don't just fall off the hill, dud'n it?" Perhaps it's a lack in me, a dwindling of the youthful fire, or perhaps it's a genuine spread of tolerance, but now I understand her to be saying simply that she is very happy for us to be out together seeing the same things. The content is irrelevant. The business is sharing.
On Sunday I took part in a performance of Bach's marathon masterwork, the "St Matthew Passion", with the London Concert Choir, at Cadogan Hall in Chelsea.
I didn't know the piece very well before we started rehearsals. I knew it to be music of immense grandeur, complexity and length (did I mention that it's long?) but I hadn't quite appreciated how gloriously irresistible its melodies are until I sang them, week after week.
In the weeks leading up to the concert, one tune in particular became my constant companion: that from the chorale, "O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden", the stately form of which recurs throughout the work in subtly different forms. I was singing it in the shower and over breakfast until one day my wife said, "That sounds like 'American Tune', by Paul Simon".Read on.
I've always thought it a bit mad to believe that Bush and Blair conspired to "lie" about the existence of Iraqi WMD, rather than genuinely, mistakenly believing Saddam had them. Apart from anything else, why would you make up a huge lie in full knowledge that you would be found out? And, if you were going to engage in said deceit, wouldn't you try harder to ensure you weren't found out?
During the research for my book, Born Liars (which, perhaps disappointingly, is not a fearless exposé of Bush and Blair but an investigation of the role of deceit in our lives) I conducted a fascinating interview with Kevin Woods, a retired US army officer, former member of the Joint Forces Command and veteran of the 1991 Gulf war. After the 2003 the US army asked Woods to conduct a "lessons learned" exercise, focusing on what Saddam's government had been thinking and doing in the run-up to war.
Woods and his team interviewed hundreds of former senior members of the Iraqi army and government, and were handed tapes of Iraqi government meetings, including meetings chaired by Saddam. It took them about five years to piece the story together. There's too much of interest to cover here - you'll have to buy the book - so I'll focus on what Iraqi officials said to him about WMD.
Woods was surprised to find that many of the Iraqi officials had drawn the same conclusions about Iraq's WMD as the West had done. Saddam constantly signalled that he was playing the West along when he denied he had WMD.
Woods asked the regime's head of research into WMD whether he had ever thought it possible there was a secret WMD programme that even he didn't know about. The official nodded. Yes, he had thought it a possibility. After all, he explained, the government was extremely compartmentalised and secretive, and everyone lied to everyone else. Only one man knew everything.
"Also", he continued, "Your president said it was so!". Iraqi officials had been impressed by Bush's certainty, and thought of the CIA as an intelligence service of legendary prowess which wouldn't make a mistake like this. (This raises the Heller-esque possibility that some Iraqis were telling Western intelligence that the WMDs existed because they believed Western intelligence when it said they existed).
Saddam had constructed a hall of mirrors into which everyone, including the West, had allowed themselves to be drawn into. When the U.S military turned up in Iraq and discovered no WMD, they were amazed. So were Iraqi officials - not so much because it turned out that Saddam had been bluffing, but because they couldn't believe that Bush would be so stupid as to neglect to take the precaution of planting some WMDs on Iraqi soil, so that the Americans had at least something to "discover". To their minds, it was incompetence of the highest order.
Gove's speech focuses on one of his core themes: the importance of knowing stuff. Somewhat mischievously, it borrows from one of the left's heroes, the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci (it was Gramsci, of course, who inspired Green Gartside to name his band Scritti Politti, which many consider to be his greatest legacy).
Willingham, respected and influential by educators and policy-makers in the States for his lucid and sensible applications of cognitive science to education, explains why Gove is right in his approach (if not necessarily his policies) and why - at least judging by his response to the speech - Stephen Twigg doesn't get it. He concludes:
Mr. Gove is rare, if not unique, among high-level education policy makers in understanding the scientific point he made in yesterday's speech. You may agree or disagree with the policies Mr. Gove sees as the logical consequence of that scientific point, but education policies that clearly contradict it are unlikely to help close the achievement gap between wealthy and poor.
First post in ages and it's about Michael Gove. Marbury's muse works in mysterious ways.
I am prompted by this piece in the New Statesman, by the normally thoughtful and perceptive Rafael Behr. It's a commentary on the bizarre, oversold, astoundingly pompous Observer "exposé" of some Twitter spat I can't even be bothered to relate. (As journalists spend more and more time on Twitter, they are becoming more convinced of its centrality to national life).
Behr goes on to express his concern that the Department of Education under Gove has become a "law unto itself". His evidence for this is that Gove's special advisers are loyal to him and boast of their independence from the department. Behr goes on to say, somewhat confusingly, that Gove has "broken" the entire department to his will, as one would, presumably, break in a wild stallion (I'm sorry if you're now thinking about Gove, topless and sweating, disciplining a horse.)
Shockingly, according to Behr, Gove is using his department to force through his political agenda. My God. A cabinet minister, elected on a clear manifesto, is getting his civil servants to implement it? Why on earth isn't this a bigger scandal?
For his crimes, Behr calls Gove a Bolshevik, which is rough stuff coming from a New Statesman political editor. He concludes that Gove is in "ruthless pursuit of his own personal revolution." Blimey. Beria was ruthless. As for "personal revolution" - what does that actually mean? It's not like Gove is forcing schools to put his picture in every classroom (though this is the the kind of thing he's regularly accused of by certain parts of the press). He is simply doing the stuff he's been saying he was going to do ever since he became shadow education secretary. New Statesman readers may not like it, but then they haven't liked much about the last thirty years (joke. Joke!).
But this is mild stuff. Every day brings a new anti-Gove rant, and one of the odd things about them is how ill-informed they are, how smug they are in their own ignorance. You often hear it remarked, as if it's an accepted truth, that Gove has a backward-looking, evidence-free, unthinkingly reactionary agenda. But Gove is more abreast of current policy debates than most of his critics. Scholars like E.D Hirsch and Daniel Willingham, influential in the States, have been arguing, from different directions, and with a great deal of evidence, that, for instance, knowledge is a pre-condition of so-called "skills" like creativity, and that tests are a good way, not just of assessing progress, but inspiring pupils to greater efforts. If you can find, from the last couple of decades, a better argued, more evidenced, more cogently expressed case for a policy agenda than this then I'd like to see it.
What is it about Gove that bends even sensible minds out of joint; that drives intelligent people absolutely batty with rage? His programme is really just a continuation of the last government's, just speeded up. I don't remember the left burning effigies of Alan Johnson.
There's some weird personal stuff going on that I can't even begin to explain (much like Blair, the very sight of him seems to make some people's eyes flash red and the green pen to jump out of its scabbard).
But I think the deeper problem is that Gove came into government to get big things done, and he is doing them. We're not used to that in this country. We find it downright offensive. And that explains a lot about the mess we're in.
I feel a bit like a grinch at the party for saying so but I wasn't as impressed as most of the press were by Obama's speech yesterday.Yes, it was a statement of unabashed liberalism, which reflected the scale of his achievement and the extent to which key liberal goals - racial equality, equality for gays - are finally being met. Yes, it made the case for government in a way that Clinton wouldn't have dared. Its boldness, such as it was (and it was too soapy and vague to be called brave), was impressive.
But other than that, what did he really say? He said that government has had a big role to play in America's greatness. Well, OK, but actually, aside from Tea Partiers and the NRA, that's not necessarily a statement with which most Americans would disagree. More importantly, the speech didn't give Americans a vision of the future. It didn't show them the way ahead, as Lincoln did in his second inaugural. In fact it perpetuated the illusion that government can carry on pretty much as it is.I said it's a speech that Clinton wouldn't have dared make but actually, his declaration that "the era of big government is over" was braver than anything Obama said yesterday. It played against expectations; Democrats aren't supposed to say that sort of thing. It also hinted at a truth that Obama either hasn't faced up to or isn't prepared to ask voters to face up to: America's government can't afford to sustain its obligations in their current form.
America has a massive, rising welfare bill, an ageing population, and a perilously high pile of debt. Not to mention a defence budget designed for a more imperial era. One way or another, whether it's via a Capitol Hill induced car crash or a planned unwinding, the government that did such an effective job of sustaining and spreading the benefits of America's post-war dynamism has to change - to get smaller, nimbler, and more efficient.
If Obama had made the case for government, and then warned that government needs to be reinvented, and that this will mean tough and sometimes painful choices, then that really would have been bold. It would also have been true.