A slightly belated prediction for 2016: it’s as likely as not that by the year’s end David Cameron will no longer be prime minister. Well, less a prediction that a statement of probability. It rests on a series of further predictions:
There’s a scene in Ewan MacColl’s autobiography in which his father, boozy after a weekend trip to Heaton Park, begins singing on the tram back to Salford:
‘Obviously, we have reason to be worried,’ the Swedish foreign minister, Margot Wallström, said last November, three days after the attacks in Paris, ‘because there are so many that are being radicalised. Once again, we are brought back to situations like the one in the Middle East, where not least, the Palestinians see that there is not a future.’ Her words were immediately condemned by the Israeli government. But the Israeli ruling coalition had been the first to make the connection. Officials compared the recent ‘wave of anger’ by Palestinians – the random knife attacks that have killed 28 Israelis, while more than 140 Palestinians have been killed in street executions – to the co-ordinated Bataclan massacre; an attempt, and not the first, to tar Palestinians with the Isis brush.
On 18 April 1947 in a cage on a tree platform in the Zika Forest in Uganda, rhesus monkey number 766 developed a fever. Its serum was inoculated into the brains of mice. They fell ill. Zika virus had been discovered. The sentinel monkey researchers were the virologist George Dick and the entomologist Alexander Haddow, based at the Rockefeller Foundation Yellow Fever Laboratories in Entebbe. Haddow went on to build a 120-foot steel tower in the forest to study high-flying mosquitoes and their viruses. The best time and place to find Zika virus was in the evening, 80 to 100 feet above the forest floor.
Dawn Foster reported recently that 196 MPs are now landlords, a rise of a quarter since the last parliament. Nearly 40 per cent of Tory MPs are letting out properties; more than 20 per cent of Labour MPs are. From 1 February they will be obliged to check the immigration status of their tenants, in line with the government’s Right to Rent scheme, which means we won’t have long to wait for the next phony immigration scandal. (Remember when Mark Harper, the minister behind the ‘Go Home’ vans, resigned after being caught employing an illegal immigrant as a cleaner in 2014? She was arrested at her daughter’s wedding, taken to Yarl's Wood and two weeks later sent back to Colombia. Harper is now chief whip.)
Inigo Thomas · Bad Weather in New York
When I lived in New York there was another dimension to the annual snowstorms, and that was the weather reporting of Robert McFadden, one of the New York Times’s great journalists. Now 78, he has been writing for the paper since 1961. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1996 'for his highly skilled writing and reporting on deadline during the year'. Among the pieces the judges mentioned was one about a shooting rampage in Harlem and another about cockfights in the Bronx, as well as McFadden's coverage of the Unabomber case and the Oklahoma City bombing. They also cited a feature on Easter Day in Corona, Queens. It began:
Thawing relations between the United States and Cuba have brought an upsurge in Cubans trying to leave the island. They’re worried they may lose their favourable US immigration status, becoming no more welcome than any other Latino who fancies life in the US.
No one could accuse Diana Kennedy of cowardice. The 92-year-old Englishwoman lives in an adobe house in Michoacán, three hours west of Mexico City, where she writes about Mexican food culture. She has seen off extortion attempts by the local police. She isn’t bothered by nearby drug traffickers. She travels through the provinces of Mexico in an old jeep, in which she also sleeps. She takes a spade with her so she can dig the wheels out of the mud when necessary. ‘I never travel in straight lines,’ she says.
Media coverage of the recent violence in Cologne is perpetuating sexism and racism in the name of feminism. On 9 January, the German magazine Focus carried a photograph on its cover of a naked white woman with black handprints all over her body. Süddeutsche Zeitung used a drawing of a black hand reaching up between a white woman’s legs. (SZ’s editors have since apologised; Focus’s have not.) A Charlie Hebdo cartoon shows monkey-like men chasing a woman and asks: ‘Who would little Aylan have become if he’d grown up? A bottom-groper in Germany.’ The British media too have carried stories on the problem of ‘migrant gang sex attacks’ and ‘sexual jihad’, accepting the far right’s use of the spectre of sexual violence to advance its anti-immigrant agenda.
Derek Sugden, the dean of acoustic engineers, who has died at the age of 91, remained perpetually surprised that architects could be so concerned with every aspect of the building they were designing ‘but not really with what it sounded like’. According to Sugden, ‘the sound is as important as the surface and the feel. It’s important because our ears define for me the nature of space.’
Plausibly, nothing much matters. Among human beings, opinions differ about how much things matter. A surprisingly common defence of the status quo is to say of some institution arraigned for affronting reason or decency that it doesn’t matter – because it’s purely 'symbolic’, say – but it's very important not to change it. So having a royal head of state doesn’t matter, because she’s a figurehead, but it matters that the post is not filled by sortition, say, because then any fool might do the job. Again, with free speech, words are mere hot air, unlike sticks and stones; but it matters intensely that people get to vociferate them. And so it is with statues.
In ‘Stubbing Wharfe’, a poem from Birthday Letters, Ted Hughes writes about sitting with Sylvia Plath in a pub ‘Between the canal and the river’ in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire:
The share prices of BAE Systems, Qinetiq and other British arms firms rose in November as the likelihood of Britain launching airstrikes against Syria increased. After the House of Commons voted in favour of military action on 2 December, there were three sorties in five days, then nothing until Christmas Day, when a Reaper drone hit an Isis checkpoint south of Raqqa. The much lauded Brimstone missiles were at last deployed on 10 January, to destroy a small supply truck. The Telegraph recently quoted a military aviation expert saying that Britain’s air campaign is ‘a non-event which can have had little, if any, impact on the balance of power on the ground’. A Reaper attacked another checkpoint in Syria on Monday, and yesterday evening Typhoon FGR4s from RAF Akrotiri dropped Paveway IV bombs (manufacturer: Raytheon UK) on a compound in Mosul. Paveway IVs are also used by the Royal Saudi Air Force. Save the Children said in early December that Britain was putting arms sales before humanitarian concerns.
It’s wrong to jeopardise patient care, even if it means working very long hours for mediocre pay. That’s why junior doctors will often turn up to work if they are themselves ill, and why they haven't gone on strike for forty years. The leader of the BMA Junior Doctors described today as ‘the saddest day in our profession’s recent history’. It’s difficult to disagree. This is not because emergency care was compromised. The service provided by junior doctors today was on a par with that of a bank holiday (the marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton was more disruptive to the NHS). Around 3500 patients had elective procedures cancelled, though, and this dispute isn’t their fault.
Not so long ago, I had a bicycle accident in the quarter of Camden Town that forms the background for many of Frank Auerbach's paintings. The front wheel lost its grip as I rode over a manhole cover, made more slippery that morning by overnight rain. It was bad luck, but my good luck it wasn't worse — my bike slipped away to the left, I fell to the right, my hip and chest took most of the impact, I wasn't wearing a helmet, it happened on a side street used by few cars, two people picked me up.
The old Labour establishment’s loud objections to Jeremy Corbyn’s reshuffle betray a belief that shadow cabinet members have a moral and democratic right to their jobs. Had Corbyn, like almost any party leader in history, appointed a shadow foreign secretary who shared his foreign policy, dismissing Hilary Benn would have prompted even more outrage from Labour’s centrists. The outrage has no democratic basis. The power to reshuffle and remove shadow ministers is, to be sure, a power from above, but it has been granted to Corbyn by the biggest popular mandate any Labour leader has ever had. Michael Dugher, Pat McFadden, Hilary Benn and Maria Eagle, on the other hand, were not elected by anyone to speak for the Labour Party as a whole. Their only mandate is from their constituents, which gives them the right to a seat in the Commons for the duration of this parliament, not a place in the shadow cabinet.
Thomas Jones · Bowie
Halfway through his final performance as Ziggy Stardust, at the Hammersmith Odeon in July 1973, David Bowie sang 'My Death', his version of 'La Mort' by Jacques Brel. It's a faintly ridiculous song, rich with pompous melancholy, but he carries it off wonderfully. 'Whatever lies behind the door/there is nothing much to do/angel or devil, I don't care/for in front of that door/there is you.' The last time through the chorus – in D.A.
Steve Mackay, the saxophone player, died in October. I found out just last week, after falling into a YouTube hole marked 'Stooges', though his death was covered not only by the music press but by the Washington Post and the Guardian. This is slightly surprising; Mackay did many things with his life, but he's known for playing on a few tracks on one album, which came out 45 years ago. Then again, the album is Fun House, and one of those tracks is '1970' – mind-blowing, earth-shattering music, which really was made to shatter the earth: 'What the Stooges put into ten minutes was so total and so very savage,' Iggy Pop wrote in his memoir, I Need More, 'the earth shook, then cracked, and swallowed all misery whole.'
French law allows naturalised citizens to be stripped of their citizenship if they commit a serious crime. Three days after the 13 November attacks in Paris, President Hollande announced that he wanted to extend the law to all citizens with dual nationality, a measure originally advocated by the Front National. The proposal will be debated in the National Assembly at the beginning of February. Rachid Ait El Haj, Bachir Ghoumid, Attila Turk, Fouad Charouali et Redouane Aberbri are in their late thirties or early forties. Four of them were born Moroccan, one Turkish, but they have all spent most of their lives in France and acquired French nationality. Last October they found out they’d lost it. ‘I was at home with my daughter, watching BFM TV,’ Attila told me. ‘They said five men – including one Franco-Turk – had been stripped of their French citizenship. It had to be us.’
The Labour Party has always been split over foreign policy. The Boer War, fought between capitalists and racists, made it difficult to choose a side; likewise the First World War (imperialism v. Prussianism); less so the Second World War, which divided the Conservatives more. The Falklands War was fought against a fascist dictator, but by the hated Thatcher and in defence of a colonial relic. And then there's the Iraq War and the bombing of Syria.
My uncle Bob died a few days before Christmas. I got my height from the same place he did. He was 6'7" and for most of his life well north of twenty stone. He reminded me of the joke about Friar Tuck. ‘Don’t worry, he’s one of us,’ somebody tells Robin Hood, and Robin says: ‘One of us? He looks like three of us.’ In most of Bellow's novels there is a Bellow stand-in, sensitive, successful in his way, but a little dreamy also, unwilling to acknowledge worldly realities, and his big brother, who is bigger physically, too, big-hearted, unpredictable, but greatly loving – he tries to make the Bellow figure face the world.
Peter Pomerantsev · Louis van Gaal
For many fans, football is a dad’s game. Fathers introduce their sons (and, less often, daughters) to it, and they may build their relationship to each other through the game. Club loyalty is often passed on from father to son. For adult fans, following football can be a legitimate return to lost childhood, with managers as replacement father figures. Football phone-in radio shows are a Freudian feast of grown men blaming managers for all their problems or showing boundless faith in them. In O, Louis: In Search of Louis van Gaal, the Dutch journalist Hugo Borst zones in on the death of van Gaal’s father when Louis was 11 as the formative event in his development. Van Gaal remembers his father as an ‘authoritarian figure; at home there was a mixture of warmth and strict adherence to moral standards.’ According to Borst, van Gaal as a football manager is trying to be the father he had taken away from him.
On 20 July 1942, Time magazine led with a story on ‘Fireman Shostakovich’. ‘Amid bombs bursting in Leningrad he heard the chords of victory,’ the caption on the cover said, under a picture based on a Soviet propaganda photo taken on the roof of the Leningrad Conservatoire in September 1941.