Book review Revolt On The Right by Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin

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Revolt On The Right: Explaining Support For The Radical Right In Britain

Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin

Published by: Routledge

It’s official: the right wing really are revolting.

Once upon a time, it was the Left who were most effective at endlessly shooting themselves in the foot in this way. In 1983, for example, the combined Labour/SDP alliance vote in the General Election was almost 68%. However, as these parties were a) not working together and b) hampered by the first past the post system, the end result was actually the biggest ever post-war win for Mrs. Thatcher’s Tories and a majority of 144.

Little wonder then, that there was plenty of ambitious talk at the time of the Millennium of this being “the progressive century” with Lib Dems and New Labour working together.

How dated such talk looks now! For now, it is the Right who are split. Under normal circumstances, one would expect a moderate Tory leader like Cameron presiding over an economic recovery and facing an unpopular Labour leader, one would be expecting the Tories to be cruising to an easy win similar to Sir Anthony Eden in 1955.

This isn’t happening. Current polls give Labour a smallish poll lead of about 4%. This isn’t huge but would give Miliband a win on a similar scale to Tony Blair’s third victory in 2005. This is partly due to the outdated boundary system which currently favours Labour (the Tories would actually need to be several points ahead of Labour even to get the same number of seats as them).

It’s also largely down to UKIP, currently in third place and polling somewhere between 11 and 15%.

Ford and Goodwin’s book is good on the twenty year history of UKIP. Mired by division and infighting, they briefly threatened to become significant a decade ago before the support of has-been daytime TV personality Robert Kilroy Silk descended into a bitter  and acrimonious power struggle. With much of UKIP support coming from a similar uneducated elderly working class base, the BNP also threatened to eclipse them before Nick Griffin’s party effectively imploded at the end of the last decade.

The leadership of Nigel Farage, a man who somehow manages to be both posh and blokey at the same time, has generally been a boon to the party, gaffe prone though they remain. I am not at all convinced that much UKIP support comes from disillusioned Labour supporters. People who want to leave the EU or who are preoccupied by immigration haven’t generally been supporting Labour for a long time now, if ever. Such people before were either BNP supporters or Tories.

Much of UKIP’s support is based on ignorance. “In the days of Clement Attlee,” UKIP spokesman Paul Nuttall argues,”the Labour MPs came from the mills, the mines and the factories. The Labour MPs today… they go to private school, they go to Oxbridge… and they become an MP.”(P136). This is palpably nonsense. Clement Attlee himself went to a public school and to Oxford. For all that it matters, a large number of Labour MPs have always come from privileged backgrounds. There is also a nasty side to the party who, in the words of one UKIP activist appeal to those who (supposedly) “lost their job in the pub because of a nice looking girl from Slovakia” (P96).

But let’s not be too harsh. If UKIP succeed as they seem to be doing in denying the Tories a parliamentary majority next year, they will undoubtedly have (quite unintentionally) done this nation a great service.

Food book review round-up

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A Girl Called Jack

100 Delicious Budget Recopies

By Jack Monroe

Penguin/Michael Joseph Paperback

RRP: £12.99

A Girl Called Jack: Update!

Further to our earlier review, we are increasingly finding this to be one of the best food books around. The cost of our own household food shopping budget has been effectively halved with recipes proving tasty, easy to follow and requiring only must use cupboard essentials. There is thus little need to plan far in advance.

Particular favourite have proven to be courgette and mini fritters (p116) and courgettes and creamy Greek cheese and courgette pasta (p98).

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Bill’s Italian Food

Bill Granger

Published by HarperCollins

RRP £20

A good book with nice pictures throughout for the aspirational reader who may easily be able to visit Italy themselves. This book was of less use to us personally though.

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John Whaites Bakes At Home

Published by: Headline

RRP £20

Few authors write as well about food as John Whaites. With a broad range of recipes (including comparatively obscure ones such as ”Aussie Crunch” which my wife had been seeking out since eating some in childhood), Whaites presents both the most simple and the most complex recipes in a manner which makes either seem easily achievable and retains a good sense of humour in his writing throughout.

Other nice touches include the excellent pictures throughout (although one per recipe at least would be nice), the useful tips section at the front plus the special recipes section at the back. Highly recommended!

Book review: Roy Jenkins, A Well Rounded Life

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Roy Jenkins: A Well Rounded Life.

John Campbell.

Published by Jonathan Cape, London.

Watching Nick Clegg being soundly beaten by UKIP leader Nigel Farage n the recent radio and TV debates was a dispiriting business. Some may have felt inclined to hark back to an earlier age when the European cause had more eloquent and effective debaters on its side. For example, Roy Jenkins.

Of course, Roy Jenkins (or Lord Jenkins of Hillhead as he was by the end) died in 2003 and would doubtless be horrified to learn that our continued membership of the European Union is now in doubt once again at all. As for the current Coalition Government, this would doubtless shock him less. He was keen on coalition governments long before it was fashionable.

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There are many myths about Roy Jenkins. One is that he was “nature’s old Etonian”, posh and clubbable despite coming from a Welsh mining background. In fact, though this is true (his father was falsely imprisoned for his role in the 1926 General Strike), Jenkins’ background was much more privileged than was generally realised. His father did, after all, serve in the Attlee Government.

Another myth which Campbell convincingly dispels is that Jenkins was lazy. He most definitely was not that, combining a busy social life (including a string of extra marital affairs), with a distinguished career as a biographer and historian in addition to being  Labour’s most successful ever Home Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer. He was also the first British President of the EEC and co-founder of the ultimately unsuccessful Social Democratic Party.

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During his comparatively  brief spell as Home Secretary between 1965 and 1967, Jenkins transformed more lives for the better than most Prime Ministers have succeeded in doing, sponsoring the legalisation of abortion and homosexuality. He is sometimes credited (or blamed) with launching the permissive society, an exaggeration even if one ignores the fact that the abolition of National Service and the death penalty had already been delivered not by Jenkins but by the Tories. He was no less successful as Chancellor. Sadly, like Tony Benn, the 1970 unexpected Labour General Election defeat of 1970 led his leadership prospects to fade, albeit in a wholly different way to Benn:  Jenkins alienating his then Eurosceptic party through his support for European unity. He was, in fact, perhaps too reluctant to challenge for the leadership and by 1976 when a vacancy finally arose with Wilson’s resignation, it was too late. The SDP, despite huge initial opinion poll success in 1981 and (unlike today’s UKIP) actual by election wins failed to break through although contrary to myth, probably didn’t ensure Tory victory in 1983 either.

This is a superb biography from distinguished author John Campbell. Despite being a self confessed SDP supporter (he actually wrote an earlier biography of Jenkins at the height of the party’s ascendancy), Campbell certainly isn’t blind to either Jenkins’ or the party’s failings.

It is a long book and there are a few errors, mostly ones of chronology. The SDP were formed in 1981 not 1982 as he states on page 9 (though the detailed account of SDP history later in the book makes clear Campbell obviously knows this). Jenkins was also first Home Secretary from 1965 to 1967, not 1966 to 1967 (p1). Tony Blair’s reform of Clause IV did not come “half a century” after Gaitskell’s attempt but only about thirty five years later (p208). Gaitskell attempted this in 1959-60. Blair’s more successful attempt was in 1994-95. Was Sir Stafford Cripps ever referred to as the “Iron Chancellor” as Campbell states (P310-P311)? Maybe he was. The nickname is more usually applied to Labour’s first ever Chancellor Snowdon, however, or sometimes Gordon Brown (and originally to Otto von Bismarck obviously). Finally, the Westland Affair peaked in January 1986 not January 1985 (p642).

But these are quibbles. This is a superb well rounded biography of a well rounded man. It is indeed a biography Roy Jenkins himself would have been proud to have written although he may have struggled to pronounce the title.

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Book review: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

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Tartt with a heart?

The Goldfinch

By Donna Tartt.

Published: Little Brown, 2013

It has now been over twenty years since the publication of The Secret History. The book provoked an immediate literary sensation and remains a hugely compelling read today. A strange tale of murder amongst an elite set of cliquey American students, it became an instant cult classic and made a star of its then youthful and seemingly mysterious author Donna Tartt.

But readers eager for more from Tartt would be disappointed. Her follow up The Little Friend didn’t appear for another full decade later and like many follow ups to successful debuts, disappointed many when it did.

Now a full decade has passed again and Tartt has finally delivered a third book. Does it deliver the goods?

The short answer is: yes. Impatient fans are owed no apology. This is, in fact, a huge book (over 700 pages), and a hugely involving saga which follows its lead character Theo Decker from his mother’s death in a terrorist attack in an art gallery through the next decade of his life during which he becomes drawn towards the world of organised crime. This occurs largely as a result of The Goldfinch itself: a small (and genuine) portrait taken by Decker from the gallery at the time of the attack.

Despite this very 21st century subject matter and its American setting, this has something of the feel of a Victorian epic, for example, Dickens’ David Copperfield. Anyone expecting another Secret History will be disappointed (and rightly so! Why not just read the original again?). But Donna Tartt has undoubtedly triumphed again: for this is a classic in its own right.

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Dawn of the Planet of the Geeks

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Once upon a time, nobody wanted to be a geek.

Geeks were stamp collectors, train spotters or computer nerds. Who would ever want to be one of them? James Bond. Rocky. Han Solo. They were heroes. Nobody wanted to be Roland from Grange Hill. Everybody wanted to be Tucker Jenkins. Dennis the Menace trounced Softy Walter every time.

Then, in the Eighties and Nineties, things started to change. Geeks like Bill Gates and Richard Branson became role models. Filmmakers Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Quentin Tarantino, Richard Linklater and Kevin Smith were notably more geeky than their drug-addled hedonistic Seventies counterparts. The films started to reflect this  with even superficially cool characters like Back To The Future’s Marty McFly and Indiana Jones (who is, of course, an archaeologist) having a geeky side.

By the end of the 20th century, films like Clerks and TV shows like Spaced and Freaks and Geeks were close to celebrating geek culture. Mainstream characters in shows like Friends and Seinfeld also started aping geek behaviour.

Now, far from being shunned, thanks to shows like The IT Crowd (now finished) and The Big Bang Theory, geeks are not only shunned but celebrated. There is now tons of pro-geek merchandise available. There is a popular website called Den of Geek. Actors like Tobey Maguire, Zooey Deschanel, Doctor Who’s Matt Smith, Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Eisenberg (who memorably played Facebook founder and geek Mark Zuckerberg in the film The Social Network) are hailed as geeks. Truly, as The Bible almost says: “the geek have inherited the Earth”.

The problem is that there are still plenty of real genuinely socially maladjusted geeks around without pretend geeks homing in on their territory. The other day, an attractive female participant on Channel 4’s First Dates proudly claimed to be a geek. Yes, she wore glasses. Yes, she was a computer programmer. But was she a geek? No way.

This has to stop.  Leave the realm of geeks to the real genuine geeks: the addictive Warcraft players, the Dungeons and Dragons enthusiasts (yes, there are still many around) and the obsessive bloggers. Ahem.

Bear in mind these simple rules:

Wearing glasses is not enough in itself to make you a geek. Nor is it even necessary. Zooey Deschanel is kooky, yes, but much too attractive and sociable to have ever been a geek. Wearing glasses just means you have defective eyesight and don’t like contact lenses. And they often look cool now anyway (see below).

Watching Game of Thrones is not enough in itself. Or The Hobbit. Or Star Wars. Or Iron Man. Or computer games. All of these things are mainstream now. However, have you read more than one Game of Thrones book? Now, you’re on your way.

You cannot like sport and be a geek.

Finally, and most importantly: if you really want to be a geek, face facts:  you will never truly be one. You might as well try to be genuinely cool.

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Book review: A Million Ways To Die In The West

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A Million Ways To Die In The West

Seth MacFarlane.

Published by Canongate.

Here’s a poser: Which is harder? Writing a funny book? Or writing a funny film or TV show?

I would have thought writing a funny book would be the easier of the two, but in my experience, this doesn’t seem to be the case. For while I’ve seen countless sitcoms and movies which have made me laugh, the number of books that have amused me to that extent remain very few.

If anyone can write a funny book it should be Seth MacFarlane. As the creator of the animated series Family Guy, he has arguably produced one of the funniest shows of the century so far. His film screenplay Ted (in which Mark Wahlberg is accompanied by a foul mouthed, sleazy teddy bear which came to life during his childhood), was a hit too. Even his lesser successes (the animated show American Dad which he co-created and his supposedly poorly received Oscar ceremony hosting gig in 2013) have been good.

This is MacFarlane’s first novel and is based on the screenplay for the forthcoming film in which he also stars which he co-wrote with Alec Sulkin. Set in the Wild West of the 1880s, it centres on Albert Stark, a sheep farmer who (rather like Wahlberg’s character in Ted) has girlfriend trouble. In this case, the problem is that the supposed love of his life Louise has deserted him in favour of the local moustache merchant. Albert soon finds himself becoming sucked into a typically western experience, namely a life of duels, shoot outs and out of body experiences with a tribe of Native Americans.

Is it funny? Well, it’s certainly mildly amusing. I suspect the dialogue isn’t totally authentic to the 1880s setting (”when I sit down and go to the bathroom, it feels like there’s a madman trying to punch his way out of my asshole”) but there’s some touching scenes between Albert’s sweet natured friend Edward and his fiancée Millie, a terrifically promiscuous prostitute who nevertheless feels it would be sinful to consummate her relationship with Edward before their big day. There’s also a song about moustaches.

It’s fine. And I expect the film will be the best comedy western since Blazing Saddles. Perhaps better. But maybe you should wait to see at the cinema? Because, for some reason, I expect it will end up being much funnier on the screen than it is on the page.

Maggie vs Tony Benn

Politics - Anthony Wedgwood Benn
Two giants of the post-war political stage have died within the last year. Margaret Thatcher and Tony Benn were both born in the year 1925 and both died within twelve months of each other.

Benn’s influence was enormous and wide ranging and he is rightly hailed as one of the great British statesmen of the last century.

But the reaction to Lady Thatcher’s death was both greater and more enduring. For there is no denying it: in the Game of Thrones battle of post-war British politics, she was the victor.

A betting man (or woman) observing the two rising stars at almost any point before the late Seventies would doubtless have favoured the young Anthony Wedgewood Benn to succeed over the young Margaret Roberts. Benn was both the son and the grandson of former MPs. Roberts was of humbler stock and had to overcome both the snobbery and sexism of the times. Thatcher’s biographer John Campbell speculates that the two must have met at Oxford University where both were active in student politics. Neither ever mentioned having done so.

After serving in the RAF, Benn entered parliament at 25. He had already been an MP for almost a decade when the now married Thatcher managed to secure the Finchley seat in October 1959.

MARGARET-THATCHER-MORTA-1

Then things shifted, while the young Thatcher impressed many as a junior minister under Macmillan, the death of Benn’s father threatened to end his political career forever. It took three years for Benn to renounce his peerage, a struggle he did not always seem likely to win.

Once back as an MP in 1963, the rest of the decade saw Benn in power achieving most of his political successes as the rising modern technology-obsessed minister in the Wilson Government. Thatcher, in opposition from 1964 to 1970 struggled, her marriage to Denis even wobbling in the mid-Sixties.

The surprise return of the Tories in 1970, however, saw her as the Education Secretary demonised as the “milk snatcher” and alongside Barbara Castle and Shirley Williams becoming one of the most high profile women in politics.

It was at this point, Benn shifted to the Left, dropping the “Anthony Wedgewood” from his name and increasingly angering many of his colleagues on the Left and Right as unlike say, Michael Foot, he increasingly began to favour principles and “ishues” (as he  himself would have put it) over party unity and consensus. He became the source of intense media interest. The Sun dubbed him “the most dangerous man in Britain”. Benn claimed he once witnesses a man emptying one of his dustbins and taking it to a nearby limo. It would be amazing if he had not been under security service surveillance.

Thatcher’s victory in becoming Tory leader in 1975, owed itself partly to bravery, partly to luck. Ex-minister Keith Joseph had destroyed his own chances with a desperately inflammatory speech about the working classes and birth control. Thatcher stood in his stead. Few expected her to stand. Few expected her to win (least of all Ted Heath). Few expected her to become PM even after she had become Opposition leader.

Benn faced a much more crowded field in his first Labour leadership contest in 1976. He came fourth but was pleased to do as well as he did.

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Thatcher struggled against Callaghan in Opposition. But the Winter of Discontent changed everything and in 1979 she won the election and became the first woman Prime Minister. Benn remained likely to face her as Opposition leader. But he as contrary enough to sit out the 1980 contest (ultimately between Denis Healey and Michael Foot) on the grounds that the leadership contest rules were soon to change anyway. Benn felt any leader would be a lame duck.

The years 1981 and 1982 would settle the battle once and for all. Benn mounted his hugely divisive bid against Healey and the Deputy leadership in 1981. Many in his own never forgave him. He came very close to winning yet Healey survived. Thereafter Benn’s influence which had peaked steadily started to wane.

Thatcher was already deeply unpopular until the Falklands War in 1982 boosted her with a momentum which would propel her through two more landslide election victories and to the end of the decade.

The 1983 election underlined Thatcher’s triumph. She won the biggest post-war Tory election victory of the post-war era achieving a majority of 144. Benn, after twenty years, lost his seat. In fact, his defeat was largely a result of boundary changes. Benn had loyally refused to switch seats. But the result was largely blamed on an overly Bennite manifesto anyway. In retrospect, his defeat was total.

He would return as MP for Chesterfield in 1984. But Labour was now moving inexorably towards a “New Labour” direction. Benn had missed the 1983 leadership contest won by Neil Kinnock. Thatcher would beat Kinnock soundly in the 1987 General Election. Kinnock would soundly beat Benn in his last unnecessary challenge in 1988.

London Tony Benn

Benn became an increasingly avuncular and much loved figure in old age. His diaries will prove an invaluable historical resource. He remained active well into his eighties. One senses he was a much happier and well rounded figure than Lady Thatcher and had a happier family life. Thatcher, in contrast, had no interests outside politics, no real sense of humour and was unlucky enough to be struck down by dementia. It is thought that she never had a good day after leaving Downing Street in November 1990 until her death last year.

But the Britain we live in today, of a diminished welfare state, high unemployment, strong markets, privatised utilities, a pro-US foreign policy, a modernised Labour Party and a Murdoch-dominated press is recognisably hers and not Benn’s.

Benn achieved much, more than many Prime Ministers have. But this was a battle he could not win.

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Tony Benn: 1925-2014

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Tony Benn, who had died, aged eighty eight was primarily famous for the following things:

He was a Labour MP for longer than anyone else .

He represented Bristol South East from 1950 until 1960, then again from 1963 until 1983. He enjoyed a final 17 year stint as MP for Chesterfield from 1984 until 2001. Even after he retired to devote “more time to politics” he maintained a high profile. As a young child, he had been introduced to giants of the early 20th century such as Mahatma Gandhi, David Lloyd George and (less proudly) Sir Oswald Mosley.

Diarist.

He is also known for his diaries which he wrote on and off from his wartime teenage years in the 1940s. He wrote them consistently from his return to parliament in the early 1960s until a bout of ill health persuaded him to stop writing them in 2009. Benn reckoned writing or taping the diaries added about an hour’s extra work to every day but they are now an invaluable historical document of Benn’s own career and the Labour Party’s history, particularly during the Wilson, Callaghan and Foot years. They have been gradually been published since the Eighties, the last volume A Blaze of Autumn Sunshine appearing only a few months ago. It is reviewed here http://chrishallamworldview.wordpress.com/2013/12/17/book-review-tony-benn-a-blaze-of-autumn-sunshine-the-last-diaries/

The best leader Labour never had?
Benn never came especially close to leadership himself. He scored fairly poorly in the 1976 Labour leadership contest (still the only one to occur while the party was in power), most of the left wing vote going to Michael Foot who came second to James Callaghan. By 1980, when Labour was back in Opposition, he might well have won the leadership contest in Opposition which was won by Foot. But Benn refused to stand, arguing that with the party’s electoral system about to be updated, any leader would ultimately be a lame duck. In 1981, he launched an unexpected and hugely divisive bid for the party deputy leadership but lost very narrowly to Denis Healey. The contest marked the peak of Benn’s influence in the party and the nadir of the party’s fortunes. Many never forgave Benn for the 1981 challenge.

Benn lost his own seat in the 1983 General Election and was thus unable to compete in the subsequent leadership contest won by Neil Kinnock (who Benn disliked as leader, though they had been friends during the early left wing phase of Kinnock’s career). Benn’s final 1988 challenge to Kinnock was taken seriously by few. Benn’s influence was clearly on the wane and he performed even worse than expected.

The cult of Benn.

In fact, though he clearly wanted the leadership at different times, Benn does not seem to have been primarily driven by dreams of power. In a strange way though, like Enoch Powell on the Right, Benn set the mood of the times (the Seventies) more decisively than actual leaders like Harold Wilson and Ted Heath did. There was intense interest and paranoia about Benn in the Seventies. The Sun labelled him “The most dangerous man in Britain” and Benn and his family were frequently harassed by the press and security services.

The battle of the peerage.

In 1942, Tony’s father, William Wedgewood Benn, also a Labour politician, was awarded a hereditary peerage. It was assumed Tony’s older brother Michael would succeed on his father’s death and as he was intent on a career in the church, this wasn’t seen as a problem. In fact, Michael was subsequently killed in the war. The death was a devastating personal blow to his brother and the family, one that Tony never entirely got over. But it also provided a serious obstacle to his political career as in those days it was impossible to renounce a peerage. Getting out of the Lords and back into the Commons as an MP would be essential if Benn was to enjoy a serious political career.

Indeed, the fact that Benn was known to have an elderly father whose death might at any moment end Benn’s career as an MP, proved something of an obstacle to Benn securing a parliamentary seat in the first place. Despite this, he won a seat while still in his twenties during the last days of the Attlee Government. Throughout the Fifties, he was recognised as a rising star in the party.

Following the death of his father in 1960, a mighty battle ensued. After several by election wins and inertia from many in his own party as well as the Tory Government, Benn triumphantly returned to the Commons in 1963. An odd side effect was that Benn’s actions enabled Lord Home to renounce his peerage and become Tory Prime Minister later that same year.

More…

He was born in 1925, the same year as Margaret Thatcher. Both attended Oxford simultaneously and probably met as both were active in student politics. However, there is no record of them meeting at this time.

Benn served in the RAF during the Second World War. He was married to his American wife Caroline for fifty years. His son Hilary Benn was a minister in the last government. Although clearly far to the Right of his father, Tony (a vocal critic of New Labour) was always careful not to criticise his son in his diaries or anywhere else,

  1. Benn enjoyed his most successful period in government as Postmaster General under Wilson introducing the giro system, opening the Post Office Tower and perhaps less happily unsuccessfully launching a scheme to remove the Queen’s head from stamps (Benn met the Queen and got the impression she backed the scheme. It seems she did not). Benn also outlawed pirate radio, something he later regretted.

Benn was generally known as Anthony Wedgewood Benn until the mid Seventies. Critics still called him this until the end of his life in the hope of embarrassing him by drawing attention to his aristocratic background. He is also sometimes referred to as the former Viscount Stansgate, although he never actually used the title himself.

Benn was known for his pipe (which he stopped smoking years ago) and compulsive tea drinking.

With the notable exception of Lord Denis Healey (who is 96) and three of the four founders of the SDP, Benn outlived most of his colleagues and opponents.

Friends included Chris Mullin (former MP and author of A Very British Coup), actress Saffron Burrows and newsreader Natasha Kaplinsky.

Benn had many opponents on both the Left and Right. Despite this, he was always recognised for his decency and courteous manner. Perhaps no politician since Churchill has overseen such an enduring and wide ranging career in public life.

Book Review: Tony Benn A Biography by Jad Adams

chrishallamworldview:

As a tribute to the veteran Labour politician Tony Benn, here, again is this review of his biography from last December…

Originally posted on Chris Hallam's World View:

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Few people who have ever lived can claim to have enjoyed as long and diverse a political career as Tony Benn.

Today, Benn is a socialist lion in winter, bearded, in poor health and approaching his ninetieth year. He ceased writing his celebrated diary four years ago. He has been a widower for some thirteen years now and has been out of parliament for almost that entire period. With the notable exception of Denis Healey, almost all of the other leading political figures of the Sixties and Seventies (Wilson, Callaghan, Heath, Jenkins, Whitelaw, Thatcher) are now gone.

There is more to Benn than longevity although his endurance is certainly worth dwelling on for a moment. Benn was born in 1925 and as a child was introduced to the likes of Mahatma Gandhi, Ramsey MacDonald, David Lloyd George and even Sir Oswald Mosley by his father, a Secretary of State for…

View original 924 more words

Blu-ray review: The Americans: Season 1 (15)

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DVD/Blu-ray. Twentieth Century Fox Entertainment

Starring: Matthew Rhys, Keri Russell, Noah Emmerich, Richard Thomas, Margo Martindale.

It’s 1981, Ronald Reagan has just been elected president and the Cold War is colder than ever. In Washington DC, seemingly ordinary suburban couple Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) bring up their two children and get on with their busy lives.

Yet in reality, “Philip” and his “wife” “Elizabeth” are much “busier” than anyone, even their own children, realise. For they are not American at all but are in fact Soviet undercover KGB agents planted during the Khrushchev era and dedicated to the destruction of (as Superman memorably put it) “truth, justice and the American way”.

As if life wasn’t complicated enough, look whose moving in next door! Why it’s the Beeman family headed by patriotic American Stan (Noah Emmerich) who is (of all things) an FBI agent! Stan’s s own marriage is recovering after a long spell undercover himself with the Klan in the Deep South. But while the Jennings know what he does (he is quite open about it), he has no idea that the Jennings are in fact the enemies in his midst although he does sense something is a little “off” about Philip.  With the two suburban families apparently growing friendlier, the stage is set for an enormous game of cat and mouse to begin.

As The Sopranos demonstrated, there’s plenty of fun to be had by mixing apparent suburban bliss with a morally ambiguous double life. Although they were formally paired together in the 1960s, the Jennings’ marriage isn’t a total sham. They love their genuinely all-American kids and do at least get jealous of each other when one or each of them takes part in the inevitable liaisons with other people which are an inevitable part of their work. Although the air of mystery is slightly undermined by the silly wigs and disguises they are forced to wear (think Val Kilmer in The Saint), we are left under no illusions: even Philip who has nagging doubts about the cause and has contemplated defecting to the West for good, is still prepared to do horrendous things in the name of the USSR.

Emmerich (once again playing a neighbour/spy as he did in The Truman Show) is actually the best thing about this in this and in some ways, the ups and downs of his life are more compelling than those of the Jennings who all too often vent their frustrations by simply  whingeing at each other. This and a general lack of a sense of humour are probably the main flaws of the series.

But with Season 2 of ex-CIA agent Joe Weisberg’s series already screening on ITV 1, this certainly shows promise. And it’s hard to be too critical of a series which gives Richard Thomas his best role (as Stan’s boss at the FBI) since his heyday as John -Boy Walton.

Extras: Deleted Scenes, Audio Commentary on Episode “The Colonel”, Executive Order 2578: Expanding The Americans Featurette, Perfecting The Art of Espionage Featurette, Ingenuity Over Technology Featurette, Gag Reel.

Rating: 4 out of 5.