In Hénin-Beaumont

In the first round of the French presidential election on Sunday 23 April, Gwendoline, an 18-year-old from Hénin-Beaumont, a small northern town of 26,000 inhabitants, voted for the first time, for Marine Le Pen. Le Pen cast her own ballot in Hénin-Beaumont too. The Front National mayor, Steeve Briois, was elected in one round of voting in 2014.

I met Gwendoline in a windswept railway station parking lot, on 1 May, as we were waiting for a bus to take us to Hénin-Beaumont. Our train had been cancelled. She laughed at how grim her bank holiday Monday had turned out to be – stuck in a car park on her way back from a funeral, with a mock baccalauréat exam to look forward to the next day.

When the bus finally arrived, it took us very slowly across former mining lands, around a slag heap, not far from Oignies, where the last French coalmine closed in 1990. Gwendoline said that everyone in her class who was old enough to vote, voted for Le Pen. There wasn’t much to do in town, she said, maybe go to Auchan, the biggest shopping centre north of Paris, in the next town. ‘It’s Hénin-Beaumont, it’s not marvellous,’ she smiled. More »

The Costs of Divorce

At the heart of this week’s Brexit shenanigans is a fact: Britain pays more into the European Union than it gets back. This is an opinion-free fact. (They do exist.) It takes no account of the wider benefits that membership brings to Britain, the continent and the world. The fact is there whether you believe, as I do, that some form of payment is worth it, or, as those who voted Leave last June do, that any amount is a tyrannical imposition. More »

Grisly Panto

Theresa May and other leaders born to clergymen, like Angela Merkel and Gordon Brown, are said to have a ‘moral compass’, a higher sensibility denied the rest of us. But do they? Maybe if subsistence depends on passing off the bizarre as unimpeachable dogma, one grows adept in glossing absurdity. Mere U-turns in policy, betrayals of binding pledges, become child’s play alongside hob-nobbing with Jesus or imbibing his bodily fluids in the guise of dodgy Merlot. From there it’s a short step to salchowing over a burka ban, or signing the Lisbon Treaty in hugger-mugger.

May’s moral compass seems to have turned into a common-sense bypass. More »

Unity through Strength

Finland celebrates its centenary this year. After bowing to the tsar for a century, the Finnish Senate decided the Bolshevik Revolution was a step too far and declared independence. In the ensuing civil war, the bourgeois, Swedish-speaking Whites eventually crushed, with German help, the Bolshevik-backed Reds. To mark the anniversary, the Finland Mint struck commemorative coins, including one that features the killing of Reds by a White firing squad (now withdrawn after protests). It’s all about forging national unity through strength. More »

Tucker’s Luck

Bill O’Reilly’s world-weary smirk has been replaced by Tucker Carlson’s confused stare in the 8 p.m. slot on Fox News. O’Reilly, the most popular host on US cable news, was sacked because of a sex scandal, but Carlson is in many ways a more fitting presenter for the age of Trump. More »

Annals of Fact-Checking

In the early 1970s I wrote a profile of Albert Einstein for the New Yorker. I had known his secretary Helen Dukas since my days at the Institute for Advanced Study. She had come with him when he emigrated from Germany and lived in the Einsteins’ house in Princeton, which after his death she shared with his stepdaughter Margot. I asked if I could visit the house. She agreed. In Einstein’s study there was an etching of James Clerk Maxwell and one of Newton which had come out of its frame. This seemed symbolically correct. Helen offered to make lunch and while she was preparing the sandwiches she gave me a book to look at. It included a letter Einstein sent from Brussels to his wife Elsa in 1930: More »

Hollande’s Successor

The French presidential election has seen countless ‘firsts’: an incumbent president not standing for a second term; his party’s candidate getting only 6 per cent of the vote; a final round that includes neither of the two main parties; a likely winner with no party at all; a losing candidate who delivered speeches via hologram. More »

Bad Colour

‘The music came across the airwaves and suddenly it felt as if the world was actually changing,’ Keith Richards said in 2003:

Things went from black and white or grey to full Technicolor: no army, there’s rock’n’roll music and as long as you’ve got a bit of bread you can buy anything, you don’t need to queue. All of these things combined created a very strong thing in England for our generation. It was a breath of fresh air and a promise of real possibilities, instead of the prospect of simply following in our fathers’ footsteps, which was pretty gloomy.

More »

Towards Beachy Head

Some elections are landmark events. As in 1918, 1945 or February 1974, they’re called not simply because another lustrum has elapsed but because some major issue requires resolution (‘What will postwar Britain be like?’; ‘Who governs Britain?’). Brexit is obviously the big issue overshadowing this election, but there’s far less distance between Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn on Brexit than between her and Kenneth Clarke or Michael Heseltine, dinosaurs bedded in the Euro-swamp where May herself still languished not a year ago. More »

On the March for Science

‘I’ll interview you in a minute,’ a man with a dictaphone said to me at the entrance to the Science Museum on Saturday. A sociologist from Brunel University, he was there to conduct field research, asking people why they were on the March for Science. The crowd – archaeologists and neuroscientists, physicists and psychologists, academics and the ‘sci-curious’ – was quieter than the average London protest, chanting occasionally: ‘What do we want? Evidence-based research. When do we want it? After peer review.’ More »

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