Friday, 29 April 2022

Chums: How a Tiny Caste of Oxford Tories Took Over the UK by Simon Kuper

 




Chums: How a Tiny Caste of Oxford Tories Took Over the UK Hardcover – 28 April 2022

by Simon Kuper

 

'A searing onslaught on the smirking Oxford insinuation that politics is all just a game. It isn't. It matters' Matthew Parris

 

Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, David Cameron, George Osborne, Theresa May, Dominic Cummings, Daniel Hannan, Jacob Rees-Mogg: Whitehall is swarming with old Oxonians. They debated each other in tutorials, ran against each other in student elections, and attended the same balls and black tie dinners.

 

They aren't just colleagues - they are peers, rivals, friends. And, when they walked out of the world of student debates onto the national stage, they brought their university politics with them.

 

Eleven of the fifteen postwar British prime ministers went to Oxford. In Chums, Simon Kuper traces how the rarefied and privileged atmosphere of this narrowest of talent pools - and the friendships and worldviews it created - shaped modern Britain.

 

A damning look at the university clique-turned-Commons majority that will blow the doors of Westminster wide open and change the way you look at our democracy forever.

 



The long read

‘A nursery of the Commons’: how the Oxford Union created today’s ruling political class

 

At the Oxford university debating society in the 80s, a generation of aspiring politicians honed the art of winning using jokes, rather than facts

 

by Simon Kuper

Tue 19 Apr 2022 06.00 BST

https://www.theguardian.com/news/2022/apr/19/oxford-union-created-ruling-political-class-boris-johnson-michael-gove-theresa-may-rees-mogg

 

When I arrived at Oxford in 1988 to study history and German, it was still a very British and quite amateurish university, shot through with sexual harassment, dilettantism and sherry. Michael Gove, Boris Johnson and the much less prominent David Cameron had graduated just before I arrived, but from my messy desk at the student newspaper Cherwell, I covered a new generation of future politicians. You couldn’t miss Jacob Rees-Mogg, the only undergraduate who went around in a double-breasted suit, or Dan Hannan who, at the age of 19, founded a popular Eurosceptic movement called the Oxford Campaign for an Independent Britain, which, with hindsight, looks like the intellectual genesis of Brexit. Cherwell was a poor imitation of Private Eye – inaccurate, gnomic and badly written in the trademark Oxford tone of relentless irony, with jokes incomprehensible to outsiders, but it turns out that we weren’t just lampooning inconsequential teenage blowhards. Though we didn’t realise it, we were witnessing British power in the making.

 

Probably the main reason Oxford has produced so many prime ministers is the Oxford Union debating society. Founded in 1823, based in a courtyard behind the Cornmarket shopping street, the union when I encountered it was a kind of children’s House of Commons. Like its London model, it resembled a gentlemen’s club complete with reading rooms, writing room and bar, and, across the garden, Europe’s largest purpose-built debating chamber.

 

The union was one of those Oxford institutions that can flatter middle-class teenagers such as William Hague and Theresa May into feeling posh. Union officers wore white tie, speakers black tie, and everyone called one another “honourable member”. The walls were lined with busts of former prime ministers who had been union men. Nineteen-year-olds debated visiting 60-year-old cabinet ministers, and tried to loll on the frontbenches just like them. Christopher Hollis, in his 1965 book on the union, called the place “a parody of the parliament of 1864 rather than that of 1964”.

 

It hadn’t changed much by the 1980s. I never became a member, but I sometimes got press tickets to debates, and I remember a young Benjamin Netanyahu dispatching hecklers, and, on the 50th anniversary of Dunkirk, former prime minister Ted Heath evoking Oxford in 1940 when German invasion loomed. Heath had been elected union president in November 1938 after accusing Neville Chamberlain of “turning all four cheeks to Hitler at once”.

 

Another attraction of the union was the bar, which – almost miraculously in 80s Britain – stayed open into the early morning after debates, until the deferential local police finally intervened. By the mid 80s, the union also had a comedy club in its Jazz Cellar, where an undergraduate comedian named Armando Iannucci was learning the art of mocking politicians.

 

From the beginning, the union chamber had functioned as a self-conscious nursery of the Commons, dominated by Etonians. In 1831, William Gladstone had made such a powerful anti-reform speech at the union that a friend from Eton alerted his father, the Duke of Newcastle, who offered the 22-year-old prodigy one of the parliamentary pocket boroughs in his gift. In 1853, Edward Bradley watched “beardless gentlemen … juggle the same tricks of rhetoric as their fathers were doing in certain other debates in a certain other House”.

 

The union’s debating rules were modelled on those of the Commons. Opposing speakers sat facing each other in adversarial formation, and there was the same “telling” of ayes and noes. But unlike the Commons, the union had no real power. Almost the only thing the union president could actually do was stage debates. Naturally, then, it encouraged a focus on rhetoric over policy. The institution perfected the articulacy that enabled aspiring politicians, barristers and columnists to argue any case, whether they believed it or not. In the union, a speaker might prepare one side of a debate, and then on the day suddenly have to switch to the other side to replace an opponent who had dropped out. I suspect it was this rhetorical tradition that prompted Louis MacNeice to write, in 1939:

 

… I hasten to explain

That having once been to the University of Oxford

You can never really again

Believe anything that anyone says and that of course is an asset

In a world like ours

 

At speakers’ dinners, 20-year-old union “hacks” – the name given to union politicians – mingled with political power brokers up from London. On one of Churchill’s visits to the union, he remarked to a student (who happened to be the future Tory minister Quintin Hogg): “If you can speak in this country, you can do anything.”

 

The union was a reason for politically inclined students, especially Tory public schoolboys, to choose Oxford over Cambridge. At Oxford, the union’s ceaseless debates and election campaigns kept the university buzzing with politics. The union elected a president, secretary, treasurer and librarian every eight-week term. The anthropologist Fiona Graham, in her 2005 book Playing at Politics: An Ethnography of the Oxford Union, described some students as “virtually professional politicians, complete with support staff and intricate election strategies and meetings”.

 

Nearly all campaigning for votes was supposedly banned under the union’s own rule 33. There were occasional attempts to enforce the rule, through tribunals featuring London lawyers, but candidates almost always flouted it.

 

Union politicians – instantly recognisable because they were the only students who wore suits – were forever traipsing around the colleges tapping up ordinary students with the phrase, “May I count on your vote?” Typically, though, only a few hundred people, many of them union insiders, bothered to cast theirs.

 

Allied candidates organised themselves into “slates”, the union version of parties but with the ideology usually left out. The slates were illegal, semi-secret, mostly hidden from the electorate, and essential to the whole enterprise. Entirely against the rules, candidates would campaign for their slates: “Vote for me as treasurer, for him as secretary and for her as president.” In other words, cheating was built into the system.

 

A union career was good practice for Westminster. You learned when an ostensible ally was lying to your face, or when you should be lying to his; when it was safe to break a rule, and when it wasn’t. Michael Heseltine, who had occupied the president’s chair – which sat on a raised dais like a throne – called it “the first step to being prime minister”. Once you had ascended the union, Downing Street felt within your grasp.

 

Like his role model Churchill, Boris Johnson spent years mastering the ancient craft of public speaking. Eton had offered unmatched opportunities to practise. Johnson ran the school’s Debating Society, and by the time he left was so well-versed in traditional speechmaking that he could perform it as parody. His sister Rachel says: “Eton Debating Society, Polsoc [Eton’s Political Society] all those places honed your oratorical abilities at a young age. They were given a huge headstart, these guys. You’d get incredible heavy-hitters going to address PolSoc and talking to the boys. It’s like playing tennis – you can’t pick up a tennis racket and go and walk on Centre Court and expect to beat Roger Federer. So much of all these things are practice. You learn what lands, and you learn what doesn’t.”

 

Johnson learned at school to defeat opponents whose arguments were better simply by ignoring their arguments. He discovered how to win elections and debates not by boring the audience with detail, but with carefully timed jokes, calculated lowerings of voice, and ad hominem jibes.

 

He went up to Oxford in 1983 as a vessel of focused ambition. Ironic about everything else, he was serious about himself. Within his peer group of public schoolboys, he felt like a poor man in a hurry. He started university with three aims, writes Sonia Purnell in Just Boris: A Tale of Blond Ambition: to get a first-class degree, to find a wife (his parents met at Oxford), and to become union president. At university he was always “thinking two decades ahead”, says his Oxford friend Lloyd Evans.

 

Whereas most students arrived in Oxford barely knowing the union existed, Johnson possessed the savvy of his class: his father had arrived at Oxford in 1959 intending to become union president. Stanley Johnson had failed, but his son was a star. Eton encourages boys to develop their individuality, or at least craft an individual brand, and nobody had done this more fully than Boris Johnson. Simon Veksner, who followed him from their house at Eton to the union, recalls: “Boris’s charisma even then was off the charts, you couldn’t measure it: so funny, warm, charming, self-deprecating. You put on a funny act, based on the Beano and PG Wodehouse. It works, and then that is who you are.”

 

Johnson became the character he played. He turned self-parody into a form of self-promotion. Like many British displays of eccentricity, his shambolic hair and dress were class statements. Much like Sebastian Flyte’s teddy bear in Brideshead Revisited, they said: my privileged status is so secure that I am free to defy norms.

 

Johnson became an “Oxford character”, one of the few undergraduates known beyond his immediate circle. He already possessed the political asset of being all too easy to write about. His girlfriend (later wife) Allegra Mostyn-Owen introduced him to the journalist Tina Brown, who was visiting Oxford to write about the death from a heroin overdose of the upper-class socialite Olivia Channon. Brown reports being traduced by Johnson, who supposedly ghosted an inaccurate attack on her in the Telegraph, under Mostyn-Owen’s byline. Brown claims to have recorded in her contemporaneous diary: “Boris Johnson is an epic shit. I hope he ends badly.”

 

Toby Young remembers the first time he saw Johnson speak at the union, in October 1983: “The motion was deadly serious – This House Would Reintroduce Capital Punishment – yet almost everything that came out of his mouth provoked gales of laughter. This was no ordinary undergraduate proposing a motion, but a music hall veteran performing a well-rehearsed comic routine. His lack of preparedness seemed less like evidence of his own shortcomings as a debater and more a way of sending up all the other speakers, as well as the pomposity of the proceedings.”

 

Young, who had come up to Oxford with his head full of Brideshead Revisited (the TV version), admits, “I was completely swept up by the Boris cult.” One young debating hopeful of the day was Frank Luntz, the future American pollster who has become known as a master of political language. (A self-proclaimed “word guy”, Luntz invented the phrase “climate change” for the George W Bush administration so as to make “global warming” seem innocuous – something he now says he regrets.)

 

He recalls: “Boris was brilliant. He bumbles through the details, but God does he know the substance. I had never met anyone like him, and I still haven’t. Boris gave a speech on the Middle East – it’s the best Middle East speech to this day I’ve ever heard, because he talked about it in terms of a playground, and kids attacking the little kid on the playground. Boris created a brilliant metaphor and then made the argument around that.”

 

Johnson also benefited from the quality of debating competition, says Luntz: “I’ve never seen a class of more talented people than that class of 1984–86 at the Oxford Union.” Luntz singles out Nick Robinson, Simon Stevens and Michael Gove. He told me: “Any one of those three, when they rose [in a debate] to intervene, the entire chamber shut up, there wasn’t a sound, because everyone knew that when they were recognised, the [previous speaker] was dead, because they were so incisive. Just bring in the ambulance and take out the body, because the three of them could cut you up and show you your heart before you collapsed.”

 

Anthony Gardner, another American contemporary of Johnson’s, later US ambassador to the EU, was less impressed: “Boris was an accomplished performer in the Oxford Union where a premium was placed on rapier wit rather than any fidelity to the facts. It was a perfect training ground for those planning to be professional amateurs. I recall how many poor American students were skewered during debates when they rather ploddingly read out statistics; albeit accurate and often relevant in their argumentation, they would be jeered by the crowds with cries of ‘boring’ or ‘facts’!”

 

The undergraduate Johnson quickly became king of all he surveyed. In 1984, a sixth-former named Damian Furniss came to Johnson’s college, Balliol, for his entrance interview. “I was a rural working-class kid with a stammer from a state school which hadn’t prepared me for the experience,” Furniss would recall in 2019.

 

“My session with the dons was scheduled for first thing after breakfast, meaning I was staying the night and had an evening to kill in the college bar. Johnson was propping up the bar with his coterie of acolytes whose only apparent role in life was to laugh at his jokes. Three years older than me … you’d have expected him to play the ambassador role, welcoming an aspiring member of his college … Instead, his piss-taking was brutal. In the course of the pint I felt obliged to finish he mocked my speech impediment, my accent, my school, my dress sense, my haircut, my background, my father’s work as farm worker and garage proprietor, and my prospects in the scholarship interview I was there for. His only motivation was to amuse his posh boy mates.”

 

At around the time of this encounter, Johnson was running for union president against the grammar-schoolboy Neil Sherlock. The election dramatised Oxford’s class struggle: toff versus “stain”. Sherlock, later a partner at KPMG and PwC, and briefly a special adviser to the Lib Dem deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, was the first in his family to attend university.

 

He recalls: “Boris Mark 1 was a very conventional Tory, clearly on the right, and had what I would term an Old Etonian entitlement view: ‘I should get the top job because I’m standing for the top job.’ He didn’t have a good sense of what he was going to do with it.”

 

Mostyn-Owens invited Sherlock to tea and asked him not to stand against “my Boris”. Undeterred, Sherlock campaigned on a platform of “meritocrat versus toff, competence versus incompetence”. Johnson mobilised his public-school networks, but even the 150 or so Etonians up at Oxford at the time proved too small a political base in the new mass union.

 

Johnson’s candidacy suffered from his Toryism. Conservatives may have been the largest faction within the union, but they were a minority in the university as a whole. Most Oxford dons of the time were anti-Thatcher, too. Denying her an honorary degree in 1985 to protest her cuts to education and research was the university’s seminal political statement of the decade. “Why should we feed the hand that bites us?” asked one don.

 

In the union election, Sherlock beat Johnson, and came away underwhelmed by his opponent: “The rhetoric, the personality, the wit were rather randomly deployed, beyond getting a laugh.” Sherlock expected the Oxford University Conservative Association’s president Nick Robinson to become the political star, and Johnson to become a “rather good journalist”. Instead, Robinson went on to present the BBC’s Today programme (where in October 2021 he told a verbose Johnson, “Prime minister, stop talking)”.

 

Johnson’s defeat to Sherlock wounded him, and he learned from it. “It was, quite likely, the making of him as a politician,” writes Purnell. “It taught him the unassailable truth that no one can truly succeed in politics if he relies entirely on his own cadre.”

 

But Etonians tend to get second chances, and a year after his humiliation, he ran for president again. He had absorbed another truth: that personality could trump politics. The second time around, he disguised his Toryism by presenting himself as an unthreatening funny man – “centrist, social democrat, warm and cuddly,” sums up Sherlock. He even managed to forge an alliance with a union hack from Ruskin College, rallying its student body of mostly adult working-class trade unionists behind his slate. Cherwell’s diarist mock-praised “Balliol’s blond bombshell” as “the unstoppable force for socialist [sic] in the Palace of the People debating society (the union to you) … Who can stop our Old Etonian Leninist from stamping his personal hammer and sickle all over the union?” Thrown in among leftists and liberals, Johnson flourished by spoofing himself. “He got away with being a Tory by being funny,” says his sister Rachel. And why not? Since the union president couldn’t make policy even about students’ lives, and Johnson wasn’t very interested in policy anyway, it was all just a power game. Johnson’s second presidential campaign was more competent. Luntz – earning his first ever consulting fee, of £180 – conducted a poll for Johnson in which, as Luntz recalls, almost all the questions were about students’ sexual habits.

 

He says now: “My mother was so embarrassed because it made the New York Times. She said, ‘How dare you ask people those questions?’” But in fact, the sex was just a cover, says Luntz: “I knew it would be so controversial that no one would think, ‘Actually this was a poll done for a political campaign’.” He slipped in two questions about the union that were intended to identify which candidate Johnson should strike a deal with about trading second-preference votes.

 

In this second campaign, Johnson also worked his charm beyond his base. Gove, a fresher in 1985, told Johnson’s biographer Andrew Gimson: “The first time I saw him was in the union bar … He seemed like a kindly, Oxford character, but he was really there like a great basking shark waiting for freshers to swim towards him.” Gove, who campaigned for him, admits: “I was Boris’s stooge.” And then, using almost the same phrase as Toby Young: “I became a votary of the Boris cult.”

 

With the votaries assuming their natural places around him, Johnson won the presidency. His defeated opponent Mark Carnegie later reflected with the much-quoted: “Sure he’s engaging, but this guy is an absolute fucking killer.”

 

Johnson’s gift turned out to be for winning office, not doing anything with it. He didn’t make much of his presidency, recalls Tim Hames, a union politician of the time: “The thing was a shambles. He couldn’t organise a term card to save his life. He didn’t have the sort of support mechanism that he realised in later life that he required.”

 

Once elected, Johnson also dropped his centrist disguise. When Balliol’s Master Anthony Kenny was contacted by a Social Democratic party MP who needed an intern, Kenny replied: “I’ve just the man for you. Bright and witty and with suitable political views. He’s just finished being president of the union, and his name is Boris Johnson.” But when Kenny told Johnson about the job, he laughed: “Master, don’t you know I am a dyed-in-the-wool Tory?”

 

After graduation, Johnson wrote a telling essay on Oxford politics for his sister’s book The Oxford Myth. He starts, characteristically, by stating the case against the union: “Nothing but a massage-parlour for the egos of the assorted twits, twerps, toffs and misfits that inhabit it … To many undergraduates, the union niffs of the purest, most naked politics, stripped of all issues except personality and ambition … Ordinary punters are frequently discouraged from voting by this thought: are they doing anything else but fattening the CVs of those who get elected?”

 

His essay tackles the great question: how to set about becoming the next prime minister? Johnson advises student politicians to assemble “a disciplined and deluded collection of stooges” to get out the vote. “Lonely girls from the women’s colleges, very often scientists” were particularly useful. Johnson added: “The tragedy of the stooge is that … he wants so much to believe that his relationship with the candidate is special that he shuts out the truth. The terrible art of the candidate is to coddle the self-deception of the stooge.”

 

Johnson would display that art throughout his political career, much of which would be accompanied by stooges he picked up at Oxford – or by his Eton-and-Oxford Union successor Rees-Mogg. Scanning Cherwell’s diary of 15 November 1985, you find much of Britain’s right wing of the 2020s already in place. Beside the story about the “Old Etonian Leninist” Johnson, another item, headed Who Thinks They’re Who, mocks Johnson’s girlfriend Mostyn-Owen and Young, “Oxford’s answer to the gutter press”. Young has gone on to become a leading voice on the Tory right, most recently campaigning against lockdowns. And the same page introduces readers to an 18-year-old Aberdonian politico named Michael Gove, already gaining fame at Oxford barely a month after his arrival. “Michael conceals his rabidly reactionary political views under a Jane Austen cleric-like exterior,” writes the diarist, who then swerves into uncharacteristic generosity: “The worst thing about this precocious pin-up is that he is, in fact, disgustingly unambitious and talented: watch this space for stories of eventual corruption …”

 

 

Gove grew into a recognisable Oxford character in outsized glasses, speaking with an exaggerated oratorical air even in daily life. When the future Guardian journalist Luke Harding arrived at Oxford in 1987, Gove led his freshers’ tour of the union. “He was basically the same [as in 2021],” recalls Harding. “He had this preternatural self-confidence, this faux-courtly manner. He seemed somewhat parodic, someone who wasn’t going to flourish in the real world.” Yet he has gone on to become the Jeeves to Johnson’s Wooster.

 

Rees-Mogg wasn’t ancestrally posh. Instead, he “adopted the persona of the institutions he attended”, diagnoses his contemporary Owen Matthews, who believes that this began as a defence mechanism for a thin, bookish child. Arriving at Oxford in 1988, he instantly became an unmissable sight, a rail-thin teenager promenading along Broad Street dressed like a Victorian vicar, in a double-breasted suit with an umbrella. In that time and place, it was about the most unconventional outfit imaginable.

 

Three-plus decades later, Rees-Mogg is unchanged. Like Johnson and Gove, he has even kept the hairstyle of his Oxford days. When I asked him about his student suit, he said: “Funnily enough, I’m probably wearing exactly the same sort of suit sitting here talking to you now.”

 

The Tory public schoolboys arrived at Oxford almost fully formed. School had given them the confidence, articulacy and knowhow to bestride the university. They had already constructed cartoon personal brands for themselves, which gave them instant recognition at Oxford.

 

They didn’t spend university trying on new accents and personas; they already knew what they wanted to be when they grew up. They were climbing the greasy pole before most students had even located it.

 

This is an edited extract from Chums: How a Tiny Caste of Oxford Tories Took Over the UK by Simon Kuper, published by Profile on 28 April.

Thursday, 28 April 2022

Life After Life | Trailer - BBC / Series and Book, by Kate Atkinson's 2013 bestseller, reviews.

Life After Life, review: a Groundhog Day period drama that makes you care about its characters

 

Kate Atkinson's 2013 bestseller has been gorgeously adapted for TV with almost everything intact

4 / 5 stars

 

By

Anita Singh,

 ARTS AND ENTERTAINMENT EDITOR

19 April 2022 • 10:00pm

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/tv/2022/04/19/life-life-review-groundhog-day-period-drama-makes-care-characters/

 

It’s BBC period drama time. Adopt the brace position. What crimes against historical accuracy are we about to witness? Which 21st-century preoccupations will be shoehorned into the script? Will Olivia Colman be in it?

 

With great relief, I can tell you that none of the above applies to Life After Life. It is a gorgeously-realised and entirely faithful adaptation of Kate Atkinson’s 2013 bestseller. The fact that it is a modern book, with a female author and protagonist, means that nobody has felt the need to tinker with the story. It has been transferred from page to screen with almost everything intact, including lines from the novel narrated here by Lesley Manville.

 

Voiceovers can often be an ominous sign in television, signalling a director who lacks confidence in their own power of storytelling. But here it works fine. If you are a fan of the book - and millions are - this drama should be pleasing.

 

The story is a fantastical one. Ursula Todd is stillborn on February 11, 1910, the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck and only a young housemaid by the mother’s bedside. But then we cut to the same scene, and Ursula lives - this time a doctor is present.

 

A few years later, she drowns while playing at the seaside. Then we spool back, live those few years again, and this time an artist painting seascapes spots the little girl in distress and rescues her from the waves. And so it goes on, with Ursula dying many times but being born again.

 

Somehow, she begins to intuit that death is around the corner and takes decisions that affect her life chances. “The world was a dangerous place but she was not powerless - quite the opposite,” the narrator informs us, although it does take Ursula several attempts to survive the Spanish ‘flu.

 

Essentially, this is a literary version of Groundhog Day. It spans two world wars, and will eventually bring Ursula face to face with Hitler in a moment that could change the course of history. There is a danger of the story - structurally, it can never be more than a collection of vignettes - appearing lightweight or gimmicky. But the quality cast prevents this from happening.

 

In future episodes, Thomasin McKenzie will take over from the child actors Eliza Riley and Isla Johnston as Ursula. In episode one, the most striking role is that of Ursula’s mother, Sylvie, played by Sian Clifford.

 

So often in period dramas, mothers are gentle figures - Lady Bridgerton in Netflix’s blockbuster series is just the latest example, channelling Little Women’s Marmee. But Clifford brings a welcome spikiness - the producers surely had her performance as Fleabag’s sister in mind when they cast her. Sylvie is short-tempered, undemonstrative, and unable to treat her daughter with uncomplicated affection. “You’re too old for that,” she tells Ursula, when the girl tries to curl up on her lap.

 

The purest love, in this first episode at least, is between Ursula and her younger brother, Teddy. It’s curious how affecting these scenes can be when you know that any tragedy that befalls them is likely to be erased in the next lifetime.

 

James McArdle plays Sylvie’s husband, Hugh. His frequent absences are better explained in the book than they are here, and in the course of this first episode we were told precious little about him. Yet when he hugged his children before going off to war, I had a lump in my throat. It is a drama that makes you care about the lives of its characters, however many times you meet them.



Life After Life review – a thoroughly addictive weepathon

 

This adaptation of Kate Atkinson’s novel about a woman who keeps on dying and being reborn is so full of grief it can feel overwhelming – but the anguish is irresistible

The show’s main priority is apparent from the start: to make you cry … Life After Life.

 

Rachel Aroesti

Tue 19 Apr 2022 22.00 BST

https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2022/apr/19/life-after-life-review-a-thoroughly-addictive-weepathon

 

Ursula Todd can’t stop dying. That’s the premise of this devastating drama, a four-part adaptation of Kate Atkinson’s 2013 novel, which documents its protagonist’s many demises – each as distressing as the last. Born to a wealthy middle-class family in 1910, Ursula dies almost instantly, strangled by her umbilical cord. But, then again, she survives – a fact relayed to us by Lesley Manville’s equanimous narrator. It’s a pattern that repeats throughout Ursula’s many comfortable childhoods: there’s a drowning incident, a fall out of a bedroom window, multiple battles with Spanish flu. And then, suddenly, she is back, being born, and doing it all over again – but this time with self-protective instincts she can’t quite account for. It’s The Butterfly Effect meets Groundhog Day (or rather “Groundhog Life”), only with none of the latter’s droll cosiness.

 

There’s not a huge amount to laugh about in Life After Life (BBC Two). The show’s main priority is apparent from the start: making people cry. If you like the feeling of being overwhelmed by vicarious trauma and grief then you’re in for a treat. And the anguish is thoroughly addictive. It’s what makes Life After Life incredibly compelling, binge-worthy even, despite being practically plotless from one episode to the next.

 

The tragedy of Ursula’s life is amorphous and inevitable and not particularly personal; it has no through-line besides the fact that the story is set during a uniquely dangerous time in British history. That’s no accident: it’s what makes her incessant dying entirely plausible. Although the first world war doesn’t directly affect her bucolic childhood, it still kills her (her father volunteers to fight, which then leads to the window fall). The 1918 influenza pandemic is harrowing – unbelievably so, from the Todds’ perspective, especially given the timing. “Hasn’t there been enough suffering?” is the dismissive response of Ursula’s steely, capable mother, unconvinced that there is a threat until it’s far too late.

 

Yet it’s when the action moves into the second world war that the universe darkens more profoundly. Until this point, Ursula’s lives have got longer and generally better. Now that progress stalls: she cannot avoid news of her beloved little brother Teddy’s death, however many times her life reboots. Her wartime experiences vary wildly – from a glittering civil service career to family life in Germany that descends into hellish starvation – but they are all deeply disturbing, the latter almost nauseatingly so.

 

In one sense, Life After Life has found a dramatic cheat code. Killing off a protagonist – especially such a sweet, thoughtful, young one – is a shortcut to brutal emotional impact. Surely a drama almost entirely made up of that moment, or the promise of it happening imminently, is an easy way to get viewers on tenterhooks? And yet it soon begins to feel miraculous that we are never inured to the awfulness of Ursula’s deaths. You can’t mourn her when you know you’ll be seeing her in the next scene, and yet you still do.

 

That’s not so much because of a particular affection for Ursula (Thomasin McKenzie) herself. She’s not a hugely distinctive personality, something necessary to accommodate all the twists her life takes. It’s not even really because of the convincing nature of the show’s world, though it does a brilliant job of making period archetypes – the grumpy servant, imperious mother, gadabout maiden aunt – seem three-dimensional (thanks mainly to the stellar cast: Jessica Hynes, Fleabag’s Sian Clifford and Jessica Brown Findlay, respectively). What makes Life After Life so upsetting is that it feels real in a broader way. Whether these deaths have actually befallen the fictional Ursula is beside the point. Their historical grounding means we know they happened to somebody, somewhere, at some time.

 

Keep watching Life After Life to make sense of its central mystery – or, indeed, its central protagonist – and you will be disappointed. Ursula never gets close to unravelling a purpose behind her predicament. “I don’t know why we live – all we do is die,” she mourns on a blitz deathbed of rubble and dust towards the end of the series, still completely mystified by the meaning of her multiple lives.

 

Usually, such drama pulls strings in order to wrap things up with a cheap, life-affirming glow, but Ursula gets only glimmers of comfort from others. Her journalist aunt Izzie – a 1920s Carrie Bradshaw – advocates viewing life as an adventure. Her avuncular psychiatrist quotes Nietzsche on amor fati – embracing your own fate. Her father, meanwhile, offers more banal words about human kindness.

 

Really, it is less about the content of their advice than the love implicit in it, which is a powerful consolation for death. That love radiates from Ursula after the conversation with her father as she boards the train back to wartime London with a heartbreaking spring in her step, ready to die all over again.



Life After Life by Kate Atkinson – review

 

Themes of fate, family life and renewal are brilliantly explored in this story of a life lived in wartime Britain

 

Alex Clark

Wed 6 Mar 2013 10.54 GMT

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/mar/06/life-after-life-kate-atkinson-review

 

Kate Atkinson's new novel is a marvel, a great big confidence trick – but one that invites the reader to take part in the deception. In fact, it is impossible to ignore it. Every time you attempt to lose yourself in the story of Ursula Todd, a child born in affluent and comparatively happy circumstances on 11 February 1910, it simply stops. If this sounds like the quick route to a short book, don't worry: the narrative starts again – and again and again – but each time it takes a different course, its details sometimes radically, sometimes marginally altered, its outcome utterly unpredictable. Atkinson's general rule is that things seem to get better with repetition, but this, her self-undermining novel seems to warn us, is a comfort that is by no means guaranteed, either.

 

She begins as she means to go on, and at the very beginning. (In fact, even this is not quite true: a brief prologue shows us Ursula in a Munich coffee shop in 1930, assassinating Hitler with her father's old service revolver.) At the start of the novel "proper", Sylvie Todd is giving birth to her third child, her situation given a fairytale atmosphere by the encroaching snow which also, alas, cuts her off from outside help in the form of Dr Fellowes or Mrs Haddock, the midwife. Ursula is stillborn, with the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck, her life unsaved for want of a pair of surgical scissors. Fortunately, though, she is allowed another go at the business of coming into being; in take two, Dr Fellowes makes it, cuts the cord and proceeds to his reward of a cold collation and some homemade piccalilli (it might be too fanciful to notice that even the piccalilli repeats).

 

Ursula's childhood is to be punctuated with such near-misses: the treacherous undertow of the Cornish sea, icy tiles during a rooftop escapade, the wildfire spread of Spanish flu. Each disaster is confirmed by variations on the phrase "darkness fell", and each new beginning heralded by the tabula rasa that snow brings. Ursula carries within her a vague, dimly apprehended sense of other, semi-lived lives, inexpressible except as impetuous actions – such as when she pushes a housemaid down the stairs to save her from a more terrible ending. That misdemeanour lands her in the office of a psychiatrist who introduces her, in kindly fashion, to the concept of reincarnation and to the roughly opposing theory of amor fati, particularly as espoused by Nietzsche: the acceptance, or even embrace, of one's fate, and the rejection of the idea that anything could, or should, have unfolded differently.

 

Amor fati is tough to take, of course, if you are a drowning child, or a battered wife, or a shell-shocked young man, or a terrified mother calling for your baby in the rubble of the blitz, all of whom and more besides make up the lives captured, however fleetingly, in Life After Life. It's equally tough if you are a novelist, and put in the powerful but invidious position of controlling what befalls your characters. Are their futures really written in their past? Can you tell what's going to happen to them simply from the way you started them off? Even sustaining your creative engagement could prove tricky: perhaps that's why one catastrophe is tagged with the exhausted words "Darkness, and so on" and why yet another recitation of Ursula's birth is reduced to a mere five lines.

 

The reader is similarly implicated in this continual manipulation of narrative tension and the suspension of disbelief. We want a story, but what kind of story do we want: something truthful or something soothing, something that ties up loose ends or something that casts us on to a tide of uncertainty, not only about what might happen, but about what already has? In Atkinson's model, we can have all of the above, but where does that leave us, with multiple tall tales clamouring for our attention?

 

Sometimes, it appears we are being offered a straight choice between happy and unhappy endings. On the one hand, there is Fox Corner, the Todd family home in what is still, although perhaps not for long, a wonderfully bucolic England. There are gin slings and tennis on the lawn and bees buzzing their "summer afternoon lullaby"; there is the reliable accumulation of children – Ursula is the third of five – and servants that are either touchingly steadfast or humorously difficult; there are beloved family dogs and treasured dolls and troublesome aunts whose bad behaviour can just about be absorbed.

 

Outside in the lane, however, lurks an evil-minded stranger, his story the more powerful for never being brought into the light; and sometimes intruders arrive under the cloak of friendship. When Ursula is molested, and then raped, by a pal of one of her brothers, her exile from Fox Corner begins; her subsequent pregnancy and illegal abortion give way to a lonely London life, solitary drinking and then, most awfully, to a violent husband who shuts her up in a mean little house in Wealdstone, far from her family.

 

Ursula's marriage to the vile Derek Oliphant – himself a constructor of false personal history – would never have happened if she had managed to evade her teenage abuser. In the next iteration, she does; and she is liberated once more, to plunge on to lives made perhaps even more divergent by the schism of the second world war. And the reader is perplexed once more: what to make of a character so chameleon-like that we can watch her excavating bomb sites on one page, stranded in a dystopian, war-torn Berlin on another and (in what admittedly requires the biggest leap of faith) being entertained by the Führer at Berchtesgaden on yet another?

 

This description of Atkinson's looping, metamorphosing narrative inevitably makes it sound tricksy, almost whimsical. Structurally, it is, but its ceaseless renewals are populated with pleasures that extend beyond the what-next variety. She captures well, for example, the traumatic shifts in British society – and does so precisely because she cuts directly from one war to the next, only later going back to fill in, partially, what happened in between. She demonstrates an extraordinary gift for capturing peril: the sections in which influenza tears through Fox Corner are truly menacing, and the descriptions of Ursula's work in a bombed-out London are masterpieces of the macabre ("'Be careful here, Mr Emslie,' she said over her shoulder, 'there's a baby, try to avoid it.'").

 

The texture of daily life is beautifully conveyed, particularly in its domestic details, which often verge on the queasily visceral. An ineptly poached egg is "a sickly jellyfish deposited on toast to die"; shortly after Sylvie's confinement, Mrs Glover, the crosspatch cook, "took a bowl of kidneys soaking in milk from the pantry and commenced removing the fatty white membrane, like a caul". On another occasion, she thumps slices of veal with a tenderiser, imagining "they're the heads of the Boche". But alongside these minutiae is set the author's fascination with the intricacies of large families, and in particular with sibling relationships.

 

The so-called family saga is, of course, where Atkinson's career as a novelist began, with the Whitbread-winning Behind the Scenes at the Museum, itself a story that refused to proceed in linear fashion, invoking the spirit of Tristram Shandy in its digressive portrayal of the life of Ruby Lennox. Neither book, of course, can really be contained by such a constricting label, just as Atkinson's four Jackson Brodie novels refuse to fit neatly into the genre marked crime. Behind the Scenes and Life After Life both co-opt the family – its evolution over time, its exponentially multiplying characters and storylines, its silences and gaps in communication – and use it to show how fiction works and what it might mean to us. But what makes Atkinson an exceptional writer – and this is her most ambitious and most gripping work to date – is that she does so with an emotional delicacy and understanding that transcend experiment or playfulness. Life After Life gives us a heroine whose fictional underpinning is permanently exposed, whose artificial status is never in doubt; and yet one who feels painfully, horribly real to us. How do you square that circle? You'd have to ask Kate Atkinson, but I doubt she would give you a straight answer.

 


Life After Life is a 2013 novel by Kate Atkinson. It is the first of two novels about the Todd family. The second, A God in Ruins, was published in 2015. Life After Life garnered acclaim from critics.

 

The novel has an unusual structure, repeatedly looping back in time to describe alternative possible lives for its central character, Ursula Todd, who is born on 11 February 1910 to an upper-middle-class family near Chalfont St Peter in Buckinghamshire. In the first version, she is strangled by her umbilical cord and stillborn. In later iterations of her life she dies as a child - drowning in the sea, or when saved from that, by falling to her death from the roof when trying to retrieve a fallen doll. Then there are several sequences when she falls victim to the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 - which repeats itself again and again, though she already has a foreknowledge of it, and only her fourth attempt to avert catching the flu succeeds.

 

Then there is an unhappy life where she is traumatised by being raped, getting pregnant and undergoing an illegal abortion, and finally becoming trapped in a highly oppressive marriage, and being killed by her abusive husband when trying to escape. In later lives she averts all this by being pre-emptively aggressive to the would-be rapist. In between, she also uses her half-memory of earlier lives to avert the young neighbour Nancy being raped and murdered by a child molester. The saved Nancy would play an important role in Ursula's later life(s), forming a deep love relationship with Ursula's brother Teddy, and would become a main character in the sequel, A God in Ruins.

 

Still later iterations of Ursula's life take her into World War II, where she works in London for the War Office and repeatedly witnesses the results of the Blitz, including a direct hit on a bomb shelter in Argyll Road in November 1940 - with herself being among the victims in some lives and among the rescuers in others. There is also a life in which she marries a German in 1934, is unable to return to England and experiences the war in Berlin under the allied bombings.

 

Ursula eventually comes to realise, through a particularly strong sense of deja vu, that she has lived before, and decides to try to prevent the war by killing Adolf Hitler in late 1930. Memory of her earlier lives also provides the means of doing that: the knowledge that by befriending Eva Braun - in 1930 an obscure shop girl in Munich - Ursula would be able to get close to Hitler with a loaded gun in her bag; the inevitable price, however, is to be herself shot dead by Hitler's Nazi followers immediately after killing him.

 

What is left unclear - since each of the time sequences end with "darkness" and Ursula's death and does not show what followed - is whether in fact all these lives actually occurred in an objective world, or were only subjectively experienced by her. Specifically it is not clear whether or not her killing Hitler in 1930 actually produced an altered timeline where the Nazis did not take power in Germany, or possibly took power under a different leader with a different course of the Second World War. Although in her 1967 incarnation Ursula speculates with her nephew on this "might have been", the book avoids giving a clear answer.

 

Critical reaction

Alex Clark of The Guardian gave Life After Life a positive review, saying that domestic details of daily life are conveyed beautifully, and that traumatic shifts in British society are also captured well "precisely because she cuts directly from one war to the next, only later going back to fill in, partially, what happened in between." Clark argued that the novel "[co-opts] the family [...] and [uses] it to show how fiction works and what it might mean to us [...] with an emotional delicacy and understanding that transcend experiment or playfulness. Life After Life gives us a heroine whose fictional underpinning is permanently exposed, whose artificial status is never in doubt; and yet one who feels painfully, horribly real to us." The Daily Telegraph's Helen Brown likewise praised it, calling it Atkinson's best book to date.[3] The Independent found the central character to be sympathetic, and argued that the book's central message was that World War II was preventable and should not have been allowed to happen.

 

Janet Maslin of The New York Times Book Review praised Life After Life as Atkinson's "very best" book and "full of mind games, but they are purposeful rather than emptily playful. [...] this one connects its loose ends with facile but welcome clarity." She described it as having an "engaging cast of characters" and called the depiction of the British experience of World War II "gutsy and deeply disturbing, just as the author intends it to be."[4] Francine Prose of The New York Times wrote that Atkinson "nimbly succeeds in keeping the novel from becoming confusing" and argued that the work "makes the reader acutely conscious of an author’s power: how much the novelist can do."

 

The Wall Street Journal's Sam Sacks dubbed Life After Life a "formidable bid" for the Man Booker Prize (though the novel was ultimately not longlisted). He said the high-concept premise of "Ursula [contriving] to avoid the accident that previously killed her [...] blends uneasily with what is otherwise a deft and convincing portrayal of an English family's evolution across two world wars [...] all the other characters seem complexly armed with free will." He found the resolution related to the prologue as "rushed and anti-climactic". But Sacks also said that "she [brings] characters to life with enviable ease", referring to the erosion of Sylvie and Hugh's marriage as "poignantly charted". Also, like Maslin, he lauded the novella-length Blitz chapter as "gorgeous and nerve-racking".

 

In NPR, novelist Meg Wolitzer suggested that the book proves that "a fully-realised world" is more important to the success of a fiction work than the progression of its story, and dubbed it a "major, serious yet playfully experimental novel". She argued that by not choosing one path for Ursula, Atkinson "opened her novel outward, letting it breathe unrestricted".

 

The Guardian's Sam Jordison expressed mixed feelings. He commended the depiction of Ursula and her family, and Atkinson's "fine storytelling and sharp eye for domestic detail". He argued, "There is real playfulness in these revisited moments and repetition never breeds dullness. Instead, we try to spot the differences and look for refractions of the same scene, considering the permutations of what is said and done. It can provide an enjoyable and interactive experience." He criticised the portions outside Britain, however, and said overall that the book has "an abundance of human warmth, but it just isn't convincing. There is much to enjoy – but not quite enough to admire."

 

In 2019, Life After Life was ranked by The Guardian as the 20th best book since 2000. It was written that the "dizzying fictional construction is grounded by such emotional intelligence that her heroine’s struggles always feel painfully, joyously real." The novel was 20th in Paste's list of the 40 best novels of the 2010s, with Alexis Gunderson arguing, "No one gets to live as many lives and have as many second chances to get the next step right as protagonist Ursula Todd. But in a decade where the real world swung between wars and elections, there are few more clarifying literary escapes than Life After Life. [...] Atkinson’s sage weaves a heartbreaking, frightening and beautiful journey that’s written with tenacity and grace."

 

It was listed as one of the decade's top 10 fiction works by Time, where it was billed as "a defining account of wartime London, as Ursula experiences the devastation of the Blitz from various perspectives, highlighting the senselessness of bombing raids. The story of her multiple lives is both moving and lighthearted, filled with comic asides and evocative language about life’s many joys and sorrows." Entertainment Weekly ranked it second, with David Canfield arguing that Life After Life "seamlessly executes an idiosyncratic premise [...] and contains a seemingly endless capacity to surprise", but that it "will stand the test of time for its in-between moments — its portraits of wartime, its glimpses into small domestic worlds, its understanding of one woman’s life as filled with infinite possibilities." The novel was among the honourable mentions on the Literary Hub list of the 20 best novels of the decade.


Wednesday, 27 April 2022

Prince Andrew loses freedom of York after councillors’ vote / REMEMBERING VIDEO / 13 Jan 2022: Prince Andrew loses military titles and patronages – BBC News


Prince Andrew loses freedom of York after councillors’ vote

 

Royal also urged to give up title of Duke of York at meeting following settlement of sexual assault case

 

Prince Andrew

Prince Andrew was granted the freedom of York in 1987. 

Mark Brown, North of England correspondent

Wed 27 Apr 2022 19.48 BST

https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2022/apr/27/prince-andrew-stripped-of-freedom-of-york-by-councillors

 

Prince Andrew has suffered another indignity after councillors in York unanimously voted to remove his honorary freedom of the city.

 

An extraordinary meeting of York city council on Wednesday also heard councillors call on Andrew to relinquish his Duke of York title in the wake of his now settled sexual assault civil case.

 

The freedom of York was granted to Andrew in 1987, essentially a wedding gift after his marriage the previous year to Sarah Ferguson.

 

At the time there was a huge, joyful civic ceremony, which attracted crowds of more than 200,000 people. Thirty-five years later it has been ignominiously removed after a meeting at York racecourse which lasted barely 25 minutes.

 

Darryl Smalley, the Liberal Democrat councillor who proposed the motion, said he was pleased to have won the support of councillors from all parties on the council.

 

“The honorary freedom of York is the highest honour we, as a city, can bestow on those who represent the very best of York,” Smalley said. “The honour is held by many notable and accomplished people who carry it with pride and responsibly.

 

“Having been stripped of his military roles and royal patronages by the Queen, we believe that it is right to remove all links that Prince Andrew still has with our great city.

 

“The removal of this honorary title sends the right message that we as a city stand with victims of abuse. The next logical step is now for Prince Andrew to do the right thing and relinquish his Duke of York title. If he fails to do so, the government and Buckingham Palace must step in to remove his title to finally end Prince Andrew’s connection to York.”

 

Aisling Musson, a Labour councillor, said the council owed it to the people of York, “particularly those who have been affected by sexual violence, abuse or human trafficking. Our first duty is not to our reputation but to their wellbeing and protection.”

 

Apart from two abstentions from the lord mayor and the lord mayor elect, all councillors at the meeting voted for Andrew to be stripped of the title.

 

Martin Rowley, a Conservative councillor, called for reassurance that in the future “nobody receives a freedom of the city award as a result of right of birth, or standing in the community”.

 

Andrew’s freedom of York had been almost forgotten about until a former council official tipped off the Guardian, which prompted York city council staff to search the archives and in turn led to Wednesday’s extraordinary meeting.

 

In February it was announced that the prince had settled his case with Virginia Giuffre who had claimed she was trafficked by Jeffrey Epstein to have sex with Andrew when she was 17, a claim the prince has denied.

 

The out-of-court settlement meant that Andrew made no admission of guilt. International lawyers said that the financial cost to Andrew was likely to be more than $10m (£7m) even before he paid his own legal bill, which is expected to run into millions.

 

The cost to his reputation has been huge. In February it was announced the Queen was stripping Andrew of his military affiliations and royal patronages. He also can no longer use the HRH royal style in any official capacity.

 

He remains, however, the Duke of York – much to the chagrin of many in the city. Rachael Maskell, the MP for York Central, has said it was “untenable for the Duke of York to cling on to his title another day longer”. A poll for the city’s newspaper, the Press, showed that 88% of people agreed.

 

An act of parliament would be needed for Andrew to be stripped of being the Duke of York, a title given to him by his mother in 1986 when he married Ferguson.

 

Buckingham Palace and a spokesperson for the Duke of York declined to comment.


Tuesday, 26 April 2022

REMEMBERING the closure of PJ Haggarts of Aberfeldy / IMAGES of a ( Half) Norfolk and a Hacking jackets, by PJ Haggarts of Aberfeldy.

"Since 1801 PJ Haggarts of Aberfeldy have been weaving some of the finest tweeds in Scotland supplying many Highland estates including the Royal family. We have a classic range of heavy weight keepers tweeds that can be made into some timeless classic country clothing perfect for that day in the field or on the hill. "



 

Old shop lost in changing times

 

When the doors shut on P&J Haggarts tweed shop in Aberfeldy last week, Scotland lost a bit of history.

 

ByDailyrecord.co.uk

00:00, 21 SEP 2012 UPDATED16:34, 11 NOV 2013

https://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/local-news/old-shop-lost-changing-times-2727874

 

When the doors shut on P&J Haggarts tweed shop in Aberfeldy last week, Scotland lost a bit of history.

 

The listed building on Dunkeld Street has been an outlet for tweed country clothing since 1882 and according to current Haggart’s owner, Robert Simpson, was one of only three old-fashioned shops of its kind left in Scotland.

 

The Haggarts family firm started in 1801, founded by James Haggart. It was at first based at the village of Acharn on the south side of LochTay.

 

James Haggart collected wool from the many farmers around Loch Tay, spinning it into yarn and then weaving it on handlooms into a material which would make warm clothing.

 

James handed the firm onto his sons Peter and James. Their initials make up the P&J of the name that came to represent rugged clothing for outdoor people.

 

Peter and James Haggart decided bigger premises were needed and relocated to Keltneyburn. Then in 1882 they set up shop in Aberfeldy in a fine new red sandstone building designed by popular Victorian architect, James MacLaren.

 

The retailing shop and tailoring business allowed the firm to offer a service that went from purchasing raw wool to the selling of completed tweed suits.

 

James Dewar Haggart took over and expanded the business far beyond the confines of Aberfeldy. In 1934 he installed power driven machinery in the mill and installed a water turbine to power the machinery and to light the shop.

 

 

James Haggart served in both county and town councils and was Provost of Aberfeldy for more than 36 years. He displayed tremendous energy in marketing his goods and was rewarded with Royal patronage, including the Queen Mother.

 

The shop proudly displayed Royal Warrants dating from 1899 to 1960 on the front of the building. Many estate owners commissioned designs for their own private tweeds, and the firm to this day keeps around 150 individual designs of tweeds used to dress everyone from Russian tycoons to gamekeepers.

 

Patricia McArthur started work in the shop in 1951. She told The PA: “Back then I was paid19/4, £97p a week.

 

“There were six tailors sitting at a big table, a cutter, a fitter and many apprentices. My first job was to sew the buttonholes.”

 

John Simpson came into the firm after James Dewar Haggart died and was followed in 1998 by his son Robert.

 

“We were doing well with around 50 per cent of orders going to the USA,” said Robert.

 

“But that vanished with the shock of 9/11.”


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