What if the Brexit vote had never happened?

Today’s headlines…

Cameron To “Step Down As PM in 2020”

David Cameron's Last Day As The UK's Prime Minister

Prime Minister, David Cameron today gave his strongest hint yet that he intends to step down as Prime Minister within two years of winning the forthcoming General Election. Speculation has been mounting that Mr. Cameron is close to announcing the date of the next election as May 22nd. This would coincide neatly with the forthcoming elections to the European Parliament.

The last General Election in May 2015, resulted in a surprise overall majority of 12 for the Conservatives. This has since fallen as a result of recent by-elections although Mr. Cameron has resisted calls to strike any sort of deal with either Tim Farron’s Liberal Democrats or the similarly-sized Democratic Unionist Party.

Having entered Downing Street in June 2010, Mr Cameron is now the third longest serving Prime Minister since 1945, after Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. At 52, he remains younger than Mrs Thatcher when she became Britain’s first (and to date, only) woman prime minister in 1979.

According to a report in the London Evening Standard, Mr Cameron’s cabinet colleagues, George Osborne, Boris Johnson, Theresa May and Michael Gove are expected to join the race to succeed him.

Labour’s Jo Cox has been amongst those urging unity in her own party, ahead of the expected election announcement. UKIP has, meanwhile, renewed calls for a referendum on continued UK membership of the European Union. Opinion polls currently indicate support for a UK exit from the EU, but also that it is low on the list of voter priorities at this time, ranking way below concerns over the NHS and education.

Opponents of a vote suggest it would be a colossal waste of time, money and energy, inviting economic uncertainty, political uncertainty and disunity at a time of growing prosperity.

Meanwhile, in New York, maverick billionaire and 2016 Republican Party nominee, Donald J. Trump has announced plans to challenge President Hillary Clinton for the White House in 2020. Trump, who will be 74 by the time of next year’s election has made repeated claims of foul play surrounding his 2016 defeat although no evidence has thus far emerged.

In 2017, Trump resumed his role on the US version of TV’s ‘The Apprentice’.

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The Oscars: A timeline

1927:

The first ever US Academy Awards are held. First World War-based thriller Wings wins the first ever Best Picture Oscar.

1933:

 In a scene reminiscent of the early scenes of the 2001 comedy film Zoolander, comedian Will Rogers opens the Best Director envelope and says, “Come and get It Frank!” Unfortunately, there were two directors called Frank nominated in that year. Frank Capra was half way to the podium before Rogers clarified that it was Frank Lloyd, director of Cavalcade who had won, not Capra. Happily, Frank Capra later won for Mr Deeds Goes To Town in 1936. In future years, the awards are always announced in a heavily scripted way, in the hope of preventing such an embarrassing error ever happening again.

1940:

Hattie McDaniel becomes the first black woman to win an acting Oscar (Best Supporting Actress: Gone With The Wind). Having been barred from the film’s Atlanta premiere due to the state’s racial laws, she is made to sit at a segregated table during the Oscar ceremony. She is only allowed to attend at all due to the Ambassador Hotel making an exception to its usual strict ‘no blacks’ policy. Her white agent sat with her at the ceremony.

1941:

How Green Is My Valley beats Citizen Kane for Best Picture. Citizen Kane subsequently became the most critically acclaimed film of all time.

1964:

Sidney Poitier (Lillies Of The Field) becomes the first black actor to win an Oscar.

1968:

A very rare occurrence: A tie in the Best Actress category. Barbara Streisand wins for Funny Girl. Katharine Hepburn also wins for The Lion In Winter (her third). As most Oscars are determined by votes from several thousand Academy members, a tie is a frequent possibility.

1970:

George C. Scott wins Best Actor for Patton. He chooses not to attend and instead stays home and watches a ball game on the other channel.

1972:

Native American Sacheen Littlefeather surprises viewers by attending to reject Marlon Brando’s second Oscar won for The Godfather on his behalf. t “He very regretfully cannot accept this very generous award. And the reasons for this being are the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry,” she says. She is actually not a political activist herself but a small-time actress who later appears in Playboy magazine.

1973:

In a famously impromptu remark, host David Niven comments on a streaker who disrupts the ceremony:  “Isn’t it fascinating to think that probably the only laugh that man will ever get in his life is by stripping off and showing his shortcomings?

1974:

Robert De Niro wins his first Oscar playing Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II. Marlon Brando played the same character in 1972’s The Godfather. It is the only time two actors have won Oscars for playing the same (fictional) person.

Tatum O’Neal becomes the youngest ever person to win a competitive Academy Award (Best Supporting Actress – Paper Moon). She is ten (she turned nine during filming).

1978:

Annie Hall beats Star Wars for Best Picture. Director and star Woody Allen begins a long tradition of not attending the Oscars (choosing to perform jazz music elsewhere on Oscar Night instead). He finally attends in 2002.

British actress Vanessa Redgrave (Best Supporting Actress: Julia) is audibly booed after she attacks opponents of her documentary film, The Palestinian as “Zionist hoodlums”. She also attacks former President Nixon.

1979:

Jane Fonda (Best Actress: Coming Home) uses sign language during her acceptance speech to highlight awareness of deafness. It is her second Oscar: she also won for Klute in 1972.

1981:

Robert De Niro wins his second Oscar for Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull. The timing is awkward as the new President, former actor, Ronald Reagan has just been shot and wounded in an assassination attempt. His attempted assassin John Hinckley was reportedly inspired by Scorsese and De Niro’s 1976 film Taxi Driver and a desire to “impress” his teenaged co-star Jodie Foster (she is not impressed).

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1982:

Katharine Hepburn wins her fourth and final Oscar for On Golden Pond. No other actor, male or female, has ever won four Oscars. Cate Blanchett later wins one for playing Hepburn herself in The Aviator in 2004.

Hepburn’s co-star Henry Fonda becomes easily the oldest ever Best Actor winner at 76. Too ill to attend the ceremony, his daughter and co-star, Jane Fonda collects the award on his behalf (he dies a few months later).

Screenwriter Colin Welland shouts “The British are coming!” following the success of Chariots of Fire this year. In fact, the next decade will prove a very lean one for British cinema, although Gandhi does win Best Picture in 1983.

1984:

Sally Field wins her second Oscar for Places In My Heart. “I haven’t had an orthodox career, and I’ve wanted more than anything to have your respect,” she says. “The first time I didn’t feel it, but this time I feel it, and I can’t deny the fact that you like me, right now, you like me!” Seen my many as overly sentimental, Field’s speech is often misquoted as: “You like me, you really like me!”

Mar 26, 2000; LOS ANGELES, CA, USA; NORTH AMERICAN SALES ONLY 72nd Academy Awards: OSCARS 2000. Best supporting actress ANGELINA JOLIE. Mandatory Credit: Photo by Chris Delmas/ZUMA Press. (©) Copyright 2000 by Chris Delmas

1991:

Whoopi Goldberg (Ghost) becomes only the second black actress to win Best Supporting Actress.

1992:

Silence of the Lambs wins in all of the “Big Five” categories: Best Film, Actor (Anthony Hopkins),  Actress (Jodie Foster), Director (Jonathan Demme) and Adapted Screenplay. This is the only the third time this has ever happened (the previous films were 1932’S It Happened One Night and 1975’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest).

Rumours abound that Jack Palance read out the wrong name during his announcement of the Best Supporting Actress winner Marisa Tomei (My Cousin Vinnie) In fact, though a surprise result, Tomei undoubtedly won. That said, Palance did seem to be in a somewhat “tired and emotional” state as he announced the award.

1993:

Couple Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon use the Best Film Editing category as a political opportunity urging the government to let HIV-positive Haitians being held at Guantanamo into the US.

1994:

“Oh, wow. This is the best drink of water after the longest drought of my life.” Steven Spielberg (Best Director: Schindler’s List) finally wins. Schindler’s List is the first black and white film to win Best Picture since The Apartment (1960).

1995:

Tom Hanks wins two Best Actor Oscars in consecutive years for Philadelphia and Forrest Gump, a feat not achieved since Spencer Tracey in the 1930s, He delivers highly emotional acceptance speeches both times, inadvertently “outing” a high school teacher as gay in the first (a moment which later inspired the Kevin Kline film In and Out) and in the second stating “I feel like I’m standing on magic legs.”

Samuel L. Jackson (Pulp Fiction) loses the Best Supporting Actor Oscar to Martin Landau (Ed Wood). Lipreaders can see Jackson clearly says “shit” on hearing the announcement from 12 year old, Anna Paquin. Jackson is unrepentant afterwards, arguing he deserved to win.

1999:

George Clooney, Nick Nolte, Ed Harris and many other actors refuse to stand or applaud Elia Kazan’s Lifetime Achievement Oscar. The On The Waterfront director testified to the notorious House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1952

2002:

Halle Berry (Monster’s Ball) becomes the first black winner of the Best Actress Oscar.

2003:

Filmmaker Michael Moore (Best Documentary: Bowling For Columbine) provokes a mixed reaction with an attack on President George W. Bush: “We live in the time where we have fictitious election results that elects a fictitious President. We live in a time where we have a man sending us to war for fictitious reasons…Shame on you, Mr. Bush, shame on you. And any time you’ve got the Pope and the Dixie Chicks against you, your time is up.”

Adrien Brody (Best Actor: The Pianist) kisses actress Halle Berry on receiving his award.

2004:

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King becomes the third film to win eleven Oscars. The others are Ben-Hur (1959) and Titanic (1997). All About Eve (1950) and Titanic remain the most nominated films (14 each). The Return of the King is the only fantasy film to win Best Picture (no sci-fi film has ever won it) and only the second sequel (the first was The Godfather Pt II in 1974).

2007:

Martin Scorsese finally wins (Director: The Departed) after years of being overlooked. “Could you double check the envelope?” he quips.

2010:

A showdown between Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker and James Cameron’s Avatar. The Hurt Locker wins Best Picture. Bigelow becomes the first woman to win Best Director (she and Cameron were married between 1989 and 1991).

2012:

The Artist is the first black and white film to win Best Picture since 1993’s Schindler’s List. Contrary to popular belief, it is not technically a silent film. Wings, the very first Best Picture winner, remains the only silent winner in this category.

Christopher Plummer (Best Supporting Actor: Beginners) becomes the oldest ever performer to win a competitive actor Oscar. He is 82.

Meryl Streep wins her 17th nomination (and her third win) for The Iron Lady joking: “When they called my name, I had this feeling I could hear half of America going, ‘Oh no. Come on… Her, again?’ You know. But, whatever.” No actor has ever been nominated as many times as Streep has: Katharine Hepburn won four times but was only nominated a still impressive 12 times. In 2018, Streep received her 21st nomination for The Post. Her other two wins were for Kramer Vs Kramer and Sophie’s Choice.

2013:

Daniel Day Lewis wins his third acting Oscar for Lincoln. Only five other actors have achieved three Oscar wins: Katharine Hepburn (who, as previously mentioned, won four), Meryl Streep, Jack Nicholson, Walter Brennan and Ingrid Bergman.

2014:

John Travolta messes up his introduction to a performance from Frozen by Idina Menzel: “Please welcome the wickedly talented, one and only Adele Dazeem,” he says.

2016:

The Oscars are widely criticised for a lack of racial diversity in the nominations.

Leonardo DiCaprio finally wins Best Actor for The Revenant.

2017:

In an embarrassing cock up, La La Land is briefly announced as Best Picture, instead of the actual winner, Moonlight. The mistake – which seems to have resulted from veteran actor Warren Beatty being given the card revealing La La Land actress Emma Stone’s Best Actress Oscar in error, and Beatty and Faye Dunaway’s understandably confused reaction – is only corrected after two minutes (“There’s a mistake. Moonlight, you guys won best picture…This is not a joke. Moonlight has won best picture”) by which time the La La Land team are midway through their acceptance speech.

Casey Affleck wins for Manchester by the Sea despite widespread controversy over sexual harassment allegations. Actress Brie Larson, an advocate of sexual assault victims, presents the award to Affleck, but seems unhappy with the result.

2019:

Comedian Kevin Hart steps down as host of the Oscars after controversy emerges over a slew of allegedly homophobic tweets he sent in the past. It is decided the Oscars will not have an official host for the first time since 1989.

Film review: Vice

Director: Adam McKay Starring: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Tyler Perry

The office of US Vice President was for a long time commonly overlooked. The position was deemed “not worth a pitcher of warm spit” by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first Vice President, John Nance Garner while as Lynne Cheney (Amy Adams) points out here, the job is essentially based around the principle of doing nothing other than waiting for the president to die.

Dick Cheney was a different sort of Vice President, however. Whereas some leaders, such as the late George H.W. Bush have been fully aware of the potential opportunities afforded by the position, (Bush had, after all, spent two terms as Veep himself) and have thus deliberately picked non-threatening buffoons like Dan Quayle as their Number 2, Bush’s own son (played here by Sam Rockwell) recognised he was hopelessly out of his depth and thus when his turn came in 2000, delegated unprecedented power to an older man, much more experienced than himself. Cheney seized this opportunity head-on and exploited it to the full.

Richard Dreyfuss has already played Cheney in Oliver Stone’s W (2008). Now Adam McKay – a director once known for comedies such as the rather good Anchorman and the rather less good Talladega Nights and Anchorman 2, turns his focus onto the last US Vice President but one.

We first meet Cheney (Bale) at a low point. As a drunken hell-raiser in the 1960s, he is encouraged out of his decline only by the words of his strong-willed wife Lynne (Amy Adams, excellent). We then cut to the extremely dramatic aftermath of the September 11th attacks of 2001. Whisked away to a “secure location”, the Vice President turns this terrible occurrence into a golden opportunity for him and his ilk. Using the new atmosphere to test the limits of his power to the limit, Cheney, aided and abetted by the conservative cheerleaders of Fox News conspire to make war against Iraq, a country which had nothing to do with the attacks whatsoever.

Gruff and lacking in charisma, the real Cheney, 78 in 2019, has never been an obvious candidate for dramatic portrayal. Despite this and the fact he bears no real physical resemblance to the man himself, Christian Bale aided by prosthetics which increasingly make him resemble a modern-day Chevy Chase as he ages from his twenties to his seventies, is brilliant as the heart-attack prone Cheney. As with Sir Anthony Hopkins in Oliver Stone’s Nixon (1995), it has taken a Welsh actor to most perfectly capture a pillar of modern American conservatism.

Steve Carell, who in McKay’s Anchorman played the idiotic weatherman Brick Tamland, (a man who we were told later “served in a senior role in the Bush administration”) is also great here as Bush’s defence secretary and Cheney’s long-time friend and rival, Donald Rumsfeld (he of the “known unknowns).

As in The Big Short which explained the reasons for the last recession in easy language, McKay deploys numerous clever tactics here – a scene performed in iambic pentameter, a false ending, a mystery narrator. Some of these work better than others: a sequence in which Alfred Molina’s waiter offers Bush’s cronies a “menu” of legal options in a restaurant, for example, just seems weird.

But, overall, this is a compelling, well-acted insight into the banality of evil.

Book review: The Cold War by Norman Friedman

The Cold War: From the Iron Curtain to the Collapse of Communism. Published by: Carlton Books.

Nothing about the Cold War is simple. When, for example, did it start? Most people would say after the Second World War but a case could be made for saying it started as soon as Russia turned towards Bolshevism (that is, Communism) in 1917. Certainly the West was hostile to the new state from the outset, numerous powers attempting to crush it with a series of military interventions during the post-revolutionary Russian Civil War. But as the USSR was on the Allied side during the war with Hitler, most people view the Cold War as starting in the late 1940s, particularly after the USSR obtained nuclear weapons in 1949. This book does the same.

When did it end then? With the news of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989? (it was in fact demolished later). With the collapse of the USSR in 1991? Were there, in fact, two Cold Wars, the first ending with the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, the second starting with the sharp decline in East-West relations following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979?

Indeed, with China, North Korea, Vietnam and Laos still Communist, could a case even be made for saying the Cold War is still on? Certainly, plenty of spying and intrigue still goes on and the world is hardly free of international tension particularly since the succession of President Trump in 2017. US defence spending is now far higher than it ever was during the official Cold War. This is essentially madness.

This thorough nicely illustrated and accessible account wisely restricts itself the key period, however, chronicling events from the botched aftermath of the Second World War, through to the Berlin Airlift, Marshall Plan, Korean War, nuclear confrontation, the space race, Detente and ultimately a largely peaceful resolution, mostly attributable to Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev. It is well worth reading.

DVD review: The Men Who Stare At Goats (2010)

Review first published on Movie Muser, 2010  http://www.moviemuser.co.uk/

Starring: George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges, Kevin Spacey, Robert Patrick. Directed By: Grant Heslov

Fox Mulder was right. The truth really was out there, all along. But, as Jon Ronson’s excellent 2004 non-fiction book demonstrated, the reality of what certain elements of the US military and government were up to in the 70s and 80s, was far stranger than anything in The X-Files.

There’s the army general, for example, who became so convinced that he could will his body to pass through solid objects that he actually physically ran into his office wall. He failed to go through it. He just crashed into it.

Then, there are the military operatives who, taking their cue from an earlier science fiction franchise, named themselves “Jedi warriors”. And then there are the men who stare at goats themselves: a crack division who become convinced that they could actually kill animals merely by deploying their ‘psychic’ powers while staring at them, causing their hearts to explode. Goats are judged to be the perfect test subjects for these experiments, it is revealed. While many soldiers felt uncomfortable staring at dogs, it is apparently much harder to forge an emotional bond with a goat.

Yet while the book was by turns hilarious and fascinating, there are causes for concern here. For one thing, this isn’t a documentary. Director Heslov has gone down the route of dramatising a non-fiction book – a feat attempted before by Richard Linklater on his version of Eric Schlosser’s ‘Fast Food Nation’. The result then was a failure. Ewan McGregor is also cast unconvincingly as a fictional American journo (presumably based on the book’s author Ronson, which is odd as both men are British anyway) partly, it is presumed, so the ‘Star Wars’ star can make play of the story’s Jedi references.

The film also makes little attempt to confront the darker aspects of the book. The bohemian freethinking of the First Earth Battalion ultimately led to some of the torture methods used in the War on Terror, but this is only alluded to here.

Despite everything, this still manages to be a consistently entertaining, compelling and amusing film. It doesn’t hurt that a bit of effort has been made on the extras, although neither the commentary from director Heslov or from the book’s author Ronson are as exciting as they could have been. Other featurettes, however, give added weight to a narrative that is always difficult to fully believe.

This is, however, fascinating enough to overcome most of its flaws. And yes, in case you’re wondering, one goat did die during the many goat staring experiments. It may well have been just a coincidence, but for safety’s sake, perhaps don’t try it out on your hamster at home. Just in case.

Bonus features:

Goats Declassified: The Real Men of the First Earth Battalion Featurette

Project Hollywood: A Classified Report From The Set Featurette

Audio Commentary with Director Grant Heslov

Audio Commentary with Author Jon Ronson

Character Bios

Deleted Scenes

Rating: 4 out of 5


Overall Verdict:

Undeniably a bit of a mess, but the story is bizarre and fascinating enough to win the day.

Reviewer: Chris Hallam

DVD review: The Last Station (2010)

Review first published on Movie Muser, June 2010  http://www.moviemuser.co.uk/

Director: Michael Hoffman

Cast: Christopher Plummer, Helen Mirren, James McAvoy, Anne-Marie Duff, Paul Giamatti, Kerry Condon, John Sessions

Running time: 107 minutes

Russia: 1910. With the First World War and the Russian Revolution still a few years off, ageing War and Peace author Leo Tolstoy (Plummer) might be expected to be enjoying a peaceful retirement. In fact, torn between the conflicting demands of his strong willed wife Countess Sofya (Mirren) and those of his increasingly zealous Tolstoyan followers, the author’s life is barely less turbulent than the events of one of his great novels.

The Last Station is less about Tolstoy himself than the plethora of characters surrounding him. The most sympathetic is perhaps young Valentin Bulgarov (McAvoy), a brainy but self conscious acolyte of the author. Arriving at the Tolstoy Estate as the author’s new private secretary, Valentin soon finds his loyalties divided. Should he side with the clique effectively led by his boss Vladimir Chertkov (Giamatti), in attempting to build a personality cult around the author or with the more reasonable wishes of Tolstoy’s undeniably unstable wife?


For a film dealing with such weighty issues, the first half of The Last Station is remarkably cheery stuff. Perhaps wary of scaring off his audience, director Hoffman devotes much screen time to the sneezing and reticent McAvoy’s tentative relationship with ballsy proto-feminist Masha (Condon). Only in the second half, does the film’s mood darken to a suitably more sombre state, yet the change is so dramatic (McAvoy’s character also transforming overnight) that it unbalances the film. 

The film is beautifully acted, however, Plummer almost looking like an American (okay, Canadian) reincarnation of Tolstoy at times and Mirren equally great as his long-suffering spouse, a woman clearly prone to emotional volatility, expressed through occasional gun-play and chicken impression, but who nevertheless has good reason to feel aggrieved.

The accompanying commentary and interviews give some insight into a project which was apparently in the pipeline for around twenty years. But ultimately it’s a problem of tone. Too lightweight in the first half, while too melancholy (and despite dramatic events, frankly, dull) in the second, somehow The Last Station never quite scales the epic heights it threatens to achieve.
Overall Verdict: Great performances elevate a film which falls just short of Tolstoyan brilliance itself.

Film review: The Iron Lady (2011)

Starring: Meryl Streep, Jim Broadbent, Olivia Colman, Richard E. Grant, Alexandra Roach, Nicholas Farrell, John Sessions

Directed By: Phyllida Lloyd

Running Time: 105 minutes

UK Release Date: January 6th, 2012

Certificate:12A

Rating: 3 out of 5

Review first published on Movie Muser, January 2012  http://www.moviemuser.co.uk/

Review: Nobody divides popular opinion quite like former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. To some she is the nation’s saviour who triumphed in the Cold War and saved the country from an assorted army of lefties, Argentinians and unruly trade unionists, reversing decades of national decline. To others, her selfish and greedy policies wrecked our NHS, public services and schools and left a legacy of rising unemployment and crime from which we’ve never recovered. 

Perhaps for this reason, large sections of this film, avoid politics completely, instead focusing on the octogenarian Thatcher of today as she copes with the onset of old age, senility and comes to terms with the death of her beloved Denis (Jim Broadbent). Streep is firmly in the Oscar class as the elderly Thatcher and Broadbent is great if perhaps a lot more jolly and fun-filled than one imagines the real Denis to have been.

But it’s a shame that so much time is devoted to imagined ideas about the state of Thatcher’s mind as the flashbacks when they do finally get going have so much material to include. We do, however, get a convincing sense of how Thatcher (initially Margaret Roberts, played by Alexandra Roach) rises up from her lowly Grantham origins through the snooty smoky male-dominated Westminster world, surprising everyone, including apparently herself by eventually becoming the first woman prime minister.

A few bits don’t ring true: the scenes of a happy Thatcher family home life seem somewhat idolised (although Olivia Colman is great as daughter “Cawol”) and a sequence where the Lady suddenly reveals she knows the price of Lurpak to her Cabinet seems rather bizarre.

Inevitably, as this is a Margaret Thatcher biopic most of the key events of her tenure are viewed entirely from her own perspective. We see the Falklands War and the Miner’s Strike. For some reason the strike (1984) not the war (1982) occurs first in this version, although as these are her random memories so arguably this is just misleading and needlessly confusing rather than just plain wrong.

But her opponents are never presented as being reasonable: they are either toffee-nosed wets or ugly hairy protesting lefties. Only towards the end, when Thatcher’s relentless single-mindedness on issues like the disastrous Poll Tax and her bullying of unlikely nemesis, Sir Geoffrey Howe (Anthony Head) unwittingly precipitates her downfall, does the screenplay lose sympathy with its subject. And even then it’s implied these failings could be an early manifestation of her illness.

But ultimately, while the strange perspective does effectively undermine the film, it’s hard not to be moved by Streep’s touching performance of a lioness in the winter of her life.

Overall Verdict: A flawed biopic but Meryl Streep deserves an Oscar for her performance. And at least the film doesn’t go on and on and on.

Book review: Queen Victoria: Daughter, Wife, Mother, Widow, by Lucy Worsley

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Book review: Queen Victoria: Daughter, Wife, Mother, Widow, by Lucy Worsley.

Published by: Hodder & Stoughton

There is now no one on Earth who was alive at the same time as Queen Victoria. Her long life began nearly two centuries ago in 1819 when Napoleon was still alive. By the time of her death in 1901, her funeral procession was able to be filmed, bringing it to a wider audience than all previous royal funerals combined. Her reign, now the second longest in British history now was hugely important, marking the peak of British imperial power and the industrial revolution and the literary careers of Charles Dickens, the Brontes, George Eliot and Thomas Hardy.

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Victoria’s reign has been very well documented, however, so it is refreshing that Lucy Worsley has managed to find a fresh perspective on it through choosing to focus on 24 key days in her long life. Through this, we are able to gain a new insight into Victoria as a person, as well as a ruler, empress and symbol of an age.

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Book review: Comrade Corbyn, by Rosa Prince

Book review: Comrade Corbyn by Rosa Prince. Published by: Biteback.

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Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has divided opinion like no other British political leader since Margaret Thatcher. To his admirers, he is above reproach, the flawless, bearded, living embodiment of socialist perfection: any criticism of him can only suggest insidious bias by the right-wing mass media.
His detractors, in contrast, see him, in the words of Rupert Murdoch’s The Sun as “a friend of terrorists who’s ready to open our borders and hike up taxes.” In short, they portray him as an unpatriotic, unprincipled, malevolent, Marxist bogeyman.
Neither characterisation is accurate and neither does Corbyn any favours. The reality, of course, lies somewhere in between these two extremes.
Jeremy Corbyn has now led Labour for three years, a period exceeding that of John Smith or Gordon Brown. Rosa Prince’s biography Comrade Corbyn: A Very Unlikely Coup was the first comprehensive biography of Corbyn to emerge, appearing in 2016. Rosa Prince is online editor for the Daily Telegraph and many thought she was an odd choice to write about the Labour leader. But as Prince herself says, this is “not a hagiography but nor is it a hatchet job”. She is right. The Guardian attacked the book as “spiteful” which is entirely unfair. The book has its problems but judging by this third edition (two supplemental epilogues update us of events since Corbyn became leader), this is a thorough and fair account of the Opposition leader’s life.

corbHe, by and large, comes across as a decent and principled man, an eternal campaigner, who genuinely seemed to have no ambitions or expectations beyond being an apparently excellent constituency MP for Islington North and a backbencher even as recently as the 2015 General Election. The story of his astonishing triumph in the 2015 Labour leadership contest (partly, though certainly not entirely, a consequence of disastrous campaigns by the three other contenders particularly a chronically indecisive Andy Burnham) is thoroughly and vividly recreated.
There is nothing to suggest any anti-Semitism in Corbyn: quite the opposite. Corbyn has speculated openly in the past that he himself might have some Jewish heritage. The worst that can be said of him is that he has been too relaxed about meeting various dubious figures with terrorist connections in the past, when serving as a backbencher. He is certainly not pro-terrorism, however and these past acts are unlikely to cause serious issues in the future.
Another valid charge against Corbyn is that he has also grown so used to constant media hostility that he can no longer tell whether any criticisms of him have any validity or not.
The press is indeed relentlessly unfairly brutal towards him, as one would expect they would be towards anyone on the Left. Corbyn has a genuine element of greatness within him, for all his failings, in my view. This should worry the Tories and the Tory press even more.

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There are a few errors in the book. Harold Wilson did not call a General Election in October 1966 (p29), Ed Miliband was not elected “under the electoral college system which had been in place since 1980” – it had been reformed in the meantime (p192) while Chris Mullin’s A Very British Coup was about a Sheffield steelworker who is unexpectedly elected Prime Minister and was not “inspired” by the career of Anthony Wedgewood-Benn (p71 and p308).
By far the worst flaw in the book, however, occurs in its early stages. Like many on the Right, Rosa Prince seems incapable of comprehending the fact that anyone who has any wealth might aspire to work towards improving society as a whole, rather than simply to consolidate their own position. Prince thus marvels endlessly at the fact Corbyn’s background was relatively comfortable and that he nevertheless became a left-winger. She simply can’t get over it. Indeed, every time someone privileged appears in the story, we are told “they were not an obvious socialist” or an “unlikely radical”. Even the fact that this occurs time and time again the narrative, does not seem to provide her with any sort of clue. Prince seems completely unaware that there has always been a large cohort of middle and upper-class support for the Left in general and for Labour specifically. Think of: the Milibands, Michael Foot, Tony Benn, Clement Attlee, Shirley Williams, Hugh Gaitskell, George Orwell and others. They were no more “unlikely” socialists than the likes of John Major, Margaret Thatcher, Richard Nixon or indeed Adolf Hitler – all from comparatively humble backgrounds – were unlikely converts to the Right.
Classics scholar Mary Beard is also described as “outspoken” while Prince seems slightly obsessed by Corbyn’s 1970s relationship with Diane Abbott. Still, Rosa Prince is a Telegraph writer. We should be grateful there is only one mention in the entire book of the Duchess of Cambridge.
These blind spots (admittedly common to many Tory supporters) flaw an otherwise thorough, well-written and well researched biography of a man who may yet one day lead Britain.

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Book review: 1918: How The First World War Was Won, by Julian Thompson

Book review: 1918: How The First World War Was Won, by Julian Thompson. Published by: Carlton Books.

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A century ago, the guns fell silent after four years of the bloodiest conflict the world had ever seen. It is a conflict often described as futile with countless lives lost in skirmishes over very trivial areas of land, it is worth remembering that this was a war won as a result of military strategy as well as a war of attrition.

In fact, as late as 1918, after the humiliating capitulation of Bolshevik Russia at Brest-Litovsk, the war still looked like it could go pretty much either way.

Major General Julian Thompson’s book is produced in conjunction with the Imperial War Museum and is packed with detailed maps and relevant illustrations. It is a thorough and comprehensive account of the final year of the First World War.

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