Book review: I Never Promised You A Rose Garden by John Crace

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If, as is often said, a week is a long time in politics, then ten months must be a lifetime. For back in November 2010, when this humorous book was published, Ed Miiband was not just the unshaven backbencher he is today, but a party leader widely reckoned to have a real shot at being Prime Minister. What’s more, the Tories, then in something called “a coalition” with a party, apparently the third party in Britain back then, called the Liberal Democrats, were looking quite vulnerable. Many still had high hopes for Nigel Farage and UKIP back then too. They don’t now. Fewer expected the post-referendum SNP surge to last, perhaps not even their new leader elected in that month, Nicola Sturgeon. What’s more such luminaries as Douglas Alexander, David Laws, Vince Cable, Charles Kennedy, Danny Alexander and Ed Balls were all still members of parliament. The last figure, indeed, had reasonable hopes of becoming Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Jeremy Corbyn? He is not mentioned here at all.

How times have changed! This is not to criticise this funny, informative and still highly enjoyable book. Guardian writer John Crace must have known this book would always have a brief shelf life but this is still well worth a read. Crace is funniest in constructing imaginary conversations between political figures and is refreshingly even handed. He is as harsh on Miliband’s automaton type ways as he is on Cameron’s gaffes (why on Earth did he appoint Andy Coulson? What on Earth was Andrew Lansley’s health care reforms supposed to be about? Why do Michael Gove and Iain Duncan Smith have to exist?).

Excellent.

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I Never Promised You A Rose Garden: A Short Guide to Modern Politics, the Coalition and the General Election. Published by: Corgi, 2014 by John Crace

Why all Democrats love war and all Republicans are wet girly sissies

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We all know the stereotype. Republicans are tough, belligerent and war-like. Democrats are soft, peace loving and wet.
But, regardless of whether you think either of these positions is admirable or not, are they supported by the facts? Consider the last hundred years…
1917: Democrat Woodrow Wilson leads the US into the First World War.
1921-33: Republican presidents avoid involvement in global affairs as far as possible and keep the US out of the League of Nations.
1941-45: Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt leads the US into the Second World War.
1945-53: Roosevelt’s Democrat successor Harry S. Truman drops two atomic bombs on Japan, ending World War II. Truman leads the US into the Cold War and the Korean War (1950-53).
1953-61: Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower ends the Korean War and avoids wider entanglements e.g. In Vietnam. The US is widely perceived to lose ground to the Soviet Union in the Cold War during this period. Cuba goes Communist. Eisenhower warns of a “military industrial complex” on leaving office.
1961-63: Democrat John F. Kennedy attempts to invade Cuba and begins dramatic increase in US military support to South Vietnam. CIA launches repeated assassination attempts on Castro.
1963-69: Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson escalates Vietnam into a major war.
1969-74: Republican Richard M. Nixon ends US involvement in Vietnam, re-opens relations with China and signs the SALT arms reduction treaty with the Soviet Union.
1974-77: US defence spending reaches an all time low under Republican Gerald Ford.
1977-81: Democrat Jimmy Carter ends Détente and begins a dramatic increase in US military spending. Boycotts the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
1981-89: Republican Ronald Reagan oversees the end of the Cold War.
Admittedly, events since the Cold War make this argument harder to sustain…
Qualifications.
All of the above is true. However, bear in mind…
Wilson and Roosevelt were hardly warmongers. Wilson broke down and cried soon after officially declaring war and later attempted to forge the League of Nations.
Eisenhower oversaw a dramatic expansion in US defence spending. The perception that the USSR overtook the US at the time, proved to be utterly false.
Nixon sabotaged peace talks in Vietnam and only ended the war after first attempting to escalate it further and invading Cambodia. Most opposition to Vietnam came from the Left and support from the Right.
Carter initially adopted a far more liberal foreign policy approach turning far more conservative midway through his presidency under the influence of adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski.
Reagan was hugely belligerent and oversaw a massive increase in US defence spending. The Cold War ended in spite of him, not because of him. Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev largely deserves the credit for this, not Reagan or anyone in the West.
Even so…

Book review: Sex, Lies & The Ballot Box

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Sex, Lies & The Ballot Box: 50 Things You Need To Know About British Elections
Edited by: Philip Cowley and Robert Ford
Published by Biteback Books

People who vote Tory are rubbish at sex. Okay, perhaps that’s not fair. But they are worse than at sex than normal people are. Sorry if that offends anyone, but it’s apparently true. If this troubles you, perhaps defecting to UKIP might help? Or marry someone else.
That’s actually the only real revelation about sex contained within this book of fifty short political essays about elections and the imminent 2015 General Election penned by the leading political academics throughout the land.
The title was worth a try though. After all, one suspects simply calling it 50 Things You Need To Know About British Elections might not have attracted fewer readers.
Which would be a shame as the book does address important, interesting if non-sexy questions:
Does canvassing for votes actually make any difference to an election result at all? Why is Wales traditionally so anti-Conservative? Why are there still so few women MPs? Are ethnic minorities really more likely to support Labour? And who lost their party the most support: Blair or Brown?
This is an interesting book then and a useful one. Just don’t go in expecting there to be lots of sex. There isn’t.

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8 things which tell you you are watching a Coen brothers’ film

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Thirty years ago, a small violent crime drama was released.
The film was Blood Simple and it was the first of the many twisted tales to come from the ingenious minds of Joel and Ethan Coen. Thanks to the likes of Fargo and The Big Lebowski today virtually everyone seen at least one Coen brothers’ film. But just in case you’re in any doubt, watch out for the following…

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1. Crime
Almost every Coen brothers’ film involves crime of some sort usually interspersed with some dark humour. Kidnapping is a particular favourite as in Fargo, The Big Lebowski, The Man Who Wasn’t There and Raising Arizona.

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2. Frances McDormand is in it
Best known for her Oscar winning performance as the amiable pregnant police officer Marge Gunderson in Fargo, McDormand has been in five other Coen brothers films including Blood Simple and Burn After Reading. She is married to Joel Coen.

Frances McDormand In 'Fargo'

3. Witty quotable dialogue
“What’s the rumpus?” (Miller’s Crossing). “You know: for kids!” (The Hudsucker Proxy). “You’re entering a world of pain!” or “The Dude abides” (The Big Lebowski). “He was kind of funny looking” (Fargo). Nearly every Coen-directed film has been entirely written by the duo and features corkers like this.

INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS

4. Steve Buscemi is in it
The Boardwalk Empire star appeared in five Coen brothers’ films in the Nineties.Bizarrely, he not only dies but his character’s body is mutilated in every one of these films.In Lebowski, for example, his character is cremated after dying. In Fargo, his character’s body is memorably fed into a wood chipper.

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5. Roads
Yes, we are aware most films have roads in them. However, in Coen films like Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, No Country For Old Men and Inside Llewyn Davis, roads play a major role in the story. There’s sometimes a fair bit of snow too. Watch out for it.

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6. John Goodman is in it
Goodman has first appeared as Hi’s convict friend in Raising Arizona but also cropped up as a horrendous old bore in Inside Llewyn Davis, as well as Barton Fink, The Big Lebowski and O Brother, Where Art Thou? John Turturro has also appeared in four of their films (for example as pervert and bowler Jesus Quintana in Lebowski and earlier played Barton Fink himself).

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7. Usually set in the past
Barely any of their films are set when the film was actually released. Lebowski was set during the 1990-91 Gulf Crisis, Fargo in the late eighties (who knows why?) True Grit is set in the 19th century, Barton Fink in the Forties and No Country For Old Men in 1980. You get the idea.

TRUE GRIT

8. They are weird
The most recurrent theme of the Coens’ films is their strangeness. Why is Fargo called Fargo when it is not even set there but in nearby Brainerd? Why did the Coens pretend it was based on a true story? Why is a batch of stolen money left undiscovered at the end? Why is the ending of No Country For Old Men so odd? Why did they base O Brother, Where Art Thou? on Homer’s Odyssey when neither Coen had apparently read it? Why is Lebowski set during the first Gulf War? Why is there a weird Roswell Incident bit in The Man Who Wasn’t There? Probably we will never know the answers. But the Coen brothers’ brilliance is not in question. Here’s to the next thirty years…

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DVD review: Tony Benn: Will and Testament

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Director: Skip Kite
Cert: 12
Running time: 95 minutes
Praslin Pictures

Labour politician Tony Benn was many things to many people. To many on the Right (many of whom are clearly far more class-obsessed than Benn or anyone on the Left has ever been), he was the ultimate hypocrite: a peer of the realm who dared to turn on his own class and embrace socialism. In fact, Benn famously renounced his hereditary peerage as soon as he could after a monumental battle with the Establishment in the early sixties. A father of three and barred from the Commons, Benn was frequently left dejected and depressed by a battle which despite public support, often didn’t seem to be going his way.
To others within his own party, he was sometimes a hindrance. Harold Wilson, Labour leader during most of the relatively short period Benn held office (about eleven years) famously remarked that Benn “immatures with age”.
But to everyone Benn was something of a phenomenon, the second longest-serving Labour MP ever and a man who dutifully, almost obsessively, recorded the events of the second half of his life.
Skip Kite begins this film, made with Benn’s cooperation during his final two years, with the old man reciting Shakespeare’s “To be or not to be” speech from Hamlet. And though, it jumps around a little (being thematic rather than strictly chronological in order) and features an odd recurring Narnia-like lamp post visual motif, it does accurately portray the Seven Ages of Benn (my own idea, not the director’s):
The schoolboy who once met the likes of Mahatma Gandhi and Ramsay MacDonald (and who, in later life, would never stop reminding people of this).
The wartime pilot.
The young ambitious Labour MP, diverted by the battle with the Lords.
The modern technocrat of the sixties. Widely seen as the future of the party and perhaps Benn at his best.
The increasingly leftist “Most dangerous man in Britain” of tabloid infamy. An agitator, yes, but always respectful and good-natured.
Switching remarkably quickly from youthful rising star, to the lisping white-haired veteran of the Kinnock and Blair years: increasingly less powerful but never less interesting.
The old man we mostly see here, still in genuine mourning for Caroline his wife of nearly fifty years and increasingly a much loved national institution (whether he liked it or not).
This is an excellent documentary and a fitting monument to one of the greatest British politicians of the 20th century.
Bonus features include a Christmas message from the elderly Benn, a selection of photos (mostly covering his early life) and Benn’s final interview.
He will be missed.

Why Labour must unite

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There is no point pretending this has been an easy week for Labour. The Lib Dems may be quailing in the face of electoral Armageddon while many Tories still resent Cameron for both failing to win in 2010 and probably leading them to defeat now.
But it is Ed Miliband and Labour who have been making headlines this week.
Is this fair?
Ed Miliband has never had tremendously high personal ratings. Until this year, however, few people had a good answer as to why this was. Miliband’s stance on press and energy reform were well received.
There have been gaffes in recent months though, notably missing mention of the deficit from the conference speech. Holding a copy of The Sun in public was also an error as was the decision to allow himself to be photographed eating. Miliband looks no weirder eating than anyone else. But the press are not Labour’s friend. Pictures can always be selected to look bad. Nobody looks good when they are half blinking.
Does any of this really matter? Well, no. They are presentation issues essentially.
Would David Miliband now be going through the same ordeal were he now leader? There is no doubt. Look at the fuss that was made over him holding a banana in public (not even really a gaffe).
Unlike the Tories, Labour have a number of potential future leaders lined up: Andy Burnham, Chuka Umunna. Yvette Cooper.
But this isn’t the time.
Let us remember:
Ed Miliband is substantially older and more experienced than Caneron and Clegg were in 2010. Miliband has cabinet experience. They did not.
Ed Miliband has adopted a respectable policy on press reform rather than Cameron’s cowardly dishonorable one. Unfortunately, this is why the press hate him more than most other Labour leaders.
Cameron has proven extremely gaffe-prone appointing Andy Coulson despite a rising tide of evidence against him, introducing the absurd bedroom tax and u-turning on everything from the pasty tax to the privatisation of national parks.
The Tories simply cannot be trusted on the NHS. Labour can.
Britain needs to stay in the EU. Only Labour can ensure this.
And Labour are, despite everything, still set to win, probably with an overall majority.
The party must remain united in these crucial last six months.

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Book review: Us by David Nicholls

Us
By David Nicholls

Hodder & Stoughton
£20

Us is the story of Douglas and Connie, a couple who are drifting towards old age and who react to the imminent departure of their son, Albie for university in a rather more dramatic way than usual: they decide to split up.


Or rather Connie does. Douglas, the narrator, a scientist persists in living in a state of denial over the matter. At any rate, he has opportunity of the trio’s ongoing Grand Tour, a 21st century version of the big trips Georgian young men took in the 18th century, to win her back. Douglas soon finds himself in danger of losing his son too and across France, Spain, Italy and the Netherlands finds himself engaged in a struggle to win his family back.


All this may sound very different to David Nicholls’ previous book, One Day, which followed the two main characters on the same date every year from the late Eighties up to the end of the last decade. It is indeed different but there are similarities. Us tends to alternate chapters between Douglas’s present day struggles in Europe and recollections of how he and Connie first met (again, in the late Eighties), became lovers, had children before their relationship gradually starts to deteriorate to the crisis point we reach at the start of the book.


The main problem here is that Douglas is such a tremendously stuffy narrator. He is fifty-four at the outset of the book but comes across as such a grumpy old fart that it’s hard not to imagine he is actually in his seventies at least. He doesn’t even seem particularly dynamic in the scenes depicting his earlier youthful years with Connie.


Perhaps this isn’t a problem. One Day was, after all, slightly spoiled for me by the main male character being such a knob. In fairness, nobody else seems to have even slightly disliked that hugely popular book. And to be fair, I’ve very much enjoyed all four of Nicholls’ excellent highly readable novels to date.


This one is different too. There is a wonderfully concise history of portrait art covering just half a page. This was long-listed for the Booker Prize. I maintain my doubts about the lead character but Nicholls, once a writer on TV’s Cold Feet, deserves credit. He is not only now an excellent writer of popular fiction. He is producing literature.

Book review: A Year in 120 Recipes by Jack Monroe

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You probably know Jack Monroe. She is a single mum whose blog hit the big time. Rather than waffling on about old long dead politicians as some people choose to do on their blogs, she decided to put recipes on hers and it soon became a smash hit. This led to a book A Girl Called Jack
https://chrishallamworldview.wordpress.com/2014/03/03/a-girl-called-jack-book-review/ released earlier this year described as “the best cookery book of all” by my wife. If this seems sexist, in my defence a) I am a rubbish cook and my wife genuinely does all the cooking and b) I do most of the cleaning around the house and all the washing up. Quite badly.

Jack Monroe photographed for Observer Food Monthly

This is the follow-up book to A Girl Called Jack. It is actually a slightly plusher and better presented book than the first (though is also more expensive). Like the first, however, it does contain many easily affordable recipes which are not only nice to eat but can be made easily using any odds and ends which you might realistically have lying around in your kitchen. And Billy Bragg is in here too: she is a bit political.
Recipes include Babab Gosht, Burned Brown Sugar Meringues, Lazarus Pesto and a Peanut Butter Bread.
I may reserve judgement until we have sampled the results. But early evidence suggests the old Jack magic has struck again.

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A Year in 120 Recipes
Jack Monroe
Published by Penguin Hardback, £18.99

Bad Education Series 2 DVD review

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School-based comedy series have a somewhat hit and miss reputation as anyone who has seen Teachers or the more recent David Walliams/Catherine Tate sitcom Big School will agree. But while not exactly disproving this rule, BBC Three’s relentlessly hip sitcom Bad Education is well worth skipping homework for.
Jack Whitehall returns as Alfie Wickers, the incompetent History teacher at Abbey Grove Comprehensive. Constantly undermined by his desperate attempts to pursue a romantic liaison with fellow teacher Rosie Gulliver (played by the excellent Solemani, star of Him & Her and The Wrong Mans) as well as by the simple fact that he is only slightly older than the pupils he is supposed to be teaching, Alfie faces challenges old and new in this second series (which includes a Christmas Special) first screened last year.
Matthew Horne’s desperately trendy Head is still a fun and the supporting cast who include the brilliant Michelle Gomez as icy deputy Izzy Pickwell remain strong. New developments in this series include a disastrous school charity swimming gala, an unwanted teen pregnancy, the arrival of a popular new American teacher and the incredibly embarrassing prospect for Alfie of a middle aged romance developing between Alfie’s father (Harry Enfield) and new staff member (Samantha Spiro of Grandma’s House).
Released just in time for the current BBC Three run of the show’s third series, this will leave some of us pining of the return of Jack Whitehall’s other (better) sitcom Fresh Meat, currently in limbo since the end of its own third series. But in the meantime, Bad Education is still a welcome distraction.

Bad Education Series 2 DVD review
BBC Worldwide
Starring: Jack Whitehall, Matthew Horne, Sarah Solemani, Harry Enfield, Michelle Gomez, Samantha Spiro

Have you just been born?

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Then look no further! If you’ve only just been born, make sure you read and absorb the following key points…

1. When things cease to be within your range of vision, do not assume they have disappeared forever.
Sometimes, of course, they will have genuinely disappeared, but more often than not, they will just be behind you or somewhere else. It is tricky. Old people get similarly confused if you use the mouse to move the screen down while they are on the computer. Just because you cannot see it, it doesn’t mean it’s not there!

2. You are not actually the universe. Things around you are not necessarily part of you and cannot be controlled directly by you. Try to get a measure of which bits are you (e.g. your arms and legs) and which bits are not (everyone else, your cot, the window). You will soon learn that while you can control your arms by thinking in a certain way, you cannot control when the sun rises or the passage of a nearby car. You are not the whole universe. Some people never fully understand this (for example, George Galloway MP) but it is better to get a handle on this early on.

3. Try to develop a sense of humour. There is your mum. Hang on – where’s she gone now? Oh look! There she is! If babies ran the Edinburgh Festival, BBC3’s schedules would be full of this sort of thing. However, it won’t pass muster in the real world. You might get a Golden Rose of Montreux for it though.

4. Older brothers and sisters will inevitably be initially better than you at everything namely walking, running, reading and doing sums. Do not be disheartened! In due course, you will eventually catch up and ideally overtake them. If you are really lucky they might end up failing in life completely, making you look even better by comparison.

5. A lesson for later in life: This is important. If you see an odd looking potato on your plate, be warned! It could be a parsnip. In due course, you will probably find that these are actually quite nice too. Just don’t expect them to taste the same, that’s all or you’ll be in for a shock.

6. Kitchen rolls and toilet rolls are not the same either! Technically, they can be used in the same way but some people will look down on you if you do. I actually only realised this when I was 26.

7. Finally: don’t expect to remember all this. Be sure to bookmark this page and re-read it in 2020, as most people forget nearly everything that happens to them in their first few years of life. Treat this period like a long drunken night out: even if you forget it yourself, lots of people will be happy to post pictures of you on Facebook during this time and will embarrass you with stories of your behaviour for years afterwards.