Paul Laity

Paul Laity is an editor at the LRB.

In​ 1889 Helena Born and Miriam Daniell, two socialists in their late twenties, left their family homes (and Daniell’s husband) in Bristol’s middle-class suburbs and moved to the slums. New converts to a ‘simple life’, they tinted the walls of their small house, waxed the uncarpeted floors and improvised furniture, hoping to set an aesthetic example to their...

Like any self-respecting modern man I buy Ecover instead of Fairy Liquid. I recycle, I worry about my carbon footprint (must cut down on those Ryanair mini-breaks) and I’m about to buy my first hemp T-shirt. Global warming has got scary, industrialised agriculture makes me angry and I’m delighted to be living in a green moment, with Labour and the Tories both desperate to appear...

As a Manchester United supporter who was born and grew up in Bristol, I have long been the subject of derision. There are loads of jokes. How many United fans does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: 480,001 – one to change it, 80,000 to say they’ve been changing it for years and 400,000 in the Home Counties to buy the replica kit. (And so on: that’s a gentle example.)...

Short Cuts: worst case scenarios

Paul Laity, 6 October 2005

If you’re feeling vulnerable in these cataclysmic times, stay clear of Lee Clarke, the Eeyore of American sociology and author of the forthcoming study of disaster, Worst Cases (Chicago, £16). ‘Doom is everywhere,’ he says, ‘catastrophes are common.’ Viruses as deadly as Ebola could circle the globe in 24 hours, ‘on the planes that don’t...

Humphrey Jennings never lacked a sense of self-worth. Peggy Guggenheim, with whom he had a brief affair in 1937, remembered him jumping up and down on their Parisian hotel bed crying out: ‘Look at me! … Don’t you think I’m beautiful?’ In fact, she thought he looked like Donald Duck, and insisted he put his clothes on and take her to meet André Breton....

William Joyce, ‘Lord Haw-Haw’, recorded his last ever broadcast from the temporary offices of the German Radio Corporation, in Hamburg, on the day Hitler shot himself. British troops were on the point of entering the city and Joyce and his colleagues had raided the cellars of the Funkhaus, drinking everything they could find. If you listen to the distant, crackly recording (which...

Working under Covers: Mata Hari

Paul Laity, 8 January 2004

It takes a special man to resist Hilda von Einem. A German spy in John Buchan’s Greenmantle (1916), she is a ‘known man-eater’, who tries to inspire a rising of ‘Muslim hordes’ against the British Empire. ‘With her bright hair and the long exquisite oval of her face she looked like some destroying fury of a Norse legend.’ She also has a mesmeric...

What Sport! George Steer

Paul Laity, 5 June 2003

On the evening of 26 April 1937, George Lowther Steer, a correspondent for the Times, was having dinner with other reporters at the Torrontegui Hotel in Bilbao. Sometime after nine, a distraught Basque official rushed into the dining-room: ‘Guernica is destroyed,’ he told them. The town was still burning when the journalists got there. Flames were licking at windows, the...

The organisers of the Festival of Britain in 1951 knew what to celebrate. At the start of the opening ceremony – a service in St Paul’s – the King praised the nation’s courage in the world wars; the official handbook declared categorically that ‘Britain is a Christian Community’; brightly coloured pavilions on the South Bank paid tribute to picturesque...

Short Cuts: Little England

Paul Laity, 24 May 2001

With Yeoman Hague’s election pledge to ‘keep Britain independent’ and ‘give us back our country’ still echoing around the LRB office, a press release arrives on the Short Cuts desk from those brave crusaders against all things metric, the British Weights and Measures Association. There is apparently to be an appeal against the recent ruling that it is illegal to...

Short Cuts: Alternative Weeping

Paul Laity, 7 September 2000

There’s been a bit of fuss recently over whether, and with what definition, the word Blairism should appear in new dictionaries. The Compact Oxford found no room for it, saying that the word must pass the test of time. The compilers of the New Penguin were braver, but, it seems, had a devil of a time choosing an appropriate definition. One happy draft referred to ‘the absence of a fundamental underlying ideology’ and ‘close attention to prevailing public opinion’. Unfortunately the final words chosen were more bland: ‘especially regarded as a modified form of traditional socialism’. A letter in the Guardian pointed out that Oliver Wendell Holmes defined blairing in 1858 as ‘polishing into correctness and smoothness’ (after the philosopher Hugh Blair, 1718-1800), which seems closer to the mark. Perhaps the Penguin compilers should also have reached for their Robert and looked up the French verb blairer, as in je ne peux pas le blairer (‘he gives me the creeps’).‘

Diary: Henry Woodd Nevinson

Paul Laity, 3 February 2000

Henry Woodd Nevinson is one of my heroes, the sort of person I dream of being. The champion crusader of Edwardian journalism, he filed pro-Revolutionary articles from Russia in 1905, and pro-Nationalist pieces from India. He won an exhausting battle to expose forced labour on the cocoa plantations of Portuguese Angola. Celebrated as a war correspondent, he started off wanting to fight, and picked up his pen only when he couldn’t persuade his Radical friends to join him in setting up a legion of volunteers to help Greece in its war against Turkey. No man in London was chucked out of more political meetings; his house was full of Russians, Indians, Irishmen, suffragettes, anarchists and troublemakers of all kinds. He rode a white charger at the head of suffrage marches, and carried himself with such distinction that he was called the Grand Duke. To top it all, when I read his diary I discovered he was passionately and very problematically in love with his best friend’s wife.

Big G and Little G

Paul Laity, 6 February 1997

The new government of 1979 had no grand plans for privatisation. It was intended that a number of small, state-owned enterprises would be sold off, but even the Tory radicals did not contemplate taking the utilities – natural monopolies providing essential services – out of the public sector. An increasingly peremptory Prime Minister, however, came to see privatisation as a ‘central means of reversing the corrosive and corrupting effects of socialism’ and ‘reclaiming territory for freedom’. By the mid-Eighties, the Government had reached the conclusion that even the utilities were better off in private hands. Electricity privatisation was introduced after the flotation of telephones, gas and water because it was, according to Thatcher, ‘the most technically and politically difficult privatisation’. The Government’s audacity in embarking on the electricity sell-off should not be underemphasised: this kind of project had not been tried in any other major industrialised country. Now the ‘British electricity experiment’ is being copied all over the developed world.’

‘The Sun Says’

Paul Laity, 20 June 1996

Whether the General Election takes place at the end of this year or the beginning of next, the Conservative Party’s campaign will focus on three issues: taxation, crime and Europe. In this it will be abetted by Britain’s most popular daily newspaper. The Sun, as we know, offers the extreme populist version of right-wing policy and, because of the scale of its readership, is considered by politicians and the media to be an important determinant of voters’ attitudes. TV and radio presenters ask politicians for reactions to the paper’s leader column, ‘The Sun Says’; ministers speaking in the House of Commons use the same phrases as the editorials. ‘Small government’ and law and order have long been crusades of British tabloids, but now Tony Blair, sensitive to popular priorities after Labour’s four successive electoral defeats, also feels that Sun readers need courting. Not for nothing did he travel to Hayman Island, Australia to address News Corporation executives; and not for nothing is he keen frequently to publish articles in the Sun.

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