Swiss voters have rejected a proposal to cut taxpayer funding to public broadcasters, after a campaign that stirred debate about the media’s role in fostering national unity.
The “No Billag” initiative – a reference to the Billag firm that collects the media licensing fee – divided Switzerland along political and generational lines.
But 71% voted “no” to the proposals on Sunday, according to official results published by the Swiss news agency ATS.
Rejection of the initiative was “a strong sign for the public service and for private regional radio and television”, said Gilles Marchand, director of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation (SSR).
He said he had noted criticism of SSR and announced an efficiency drive and 100m Swiss franc (£77m) investment from next year.
No Billag’s backers, led by the youth wing of the libertarian Free Democratic party (PLR), sought to portray the SSR as an unfairly dominant and outdated relic. Switzerland’s largest party, the nationalist and anti-migrant Swiss Peoples party (UDC), had also thrown its support behind the initiative.
SSR, which received about 1.2bn Swiss francs from the licence fee last year – or three-quarters of its budget – delivers news in the country’s four official languages: German, French, Italian and Romansch. Many credit it for guaranteeing that all Swiss residents receive information of crucial public interest, along with a range of opinion and analysis.
But No Billag’s proponents argued that freeing taxpayers of the 451-Swiss franc annual fee would unlock new economic potential, create a more competitive media sector and ultimately foster more choice. The cost is due to drop to 365 Swiss francs next year, but everyone will have to pay, even if they do not own a television or radio, after the government decided both platforms were watched and listened to via the internet.
Sunday’s poll was part of Switzerland’s direct democracy system, where proposed initiatives face a national vote four times a year. Turnout reached 54%, nearly 10% above the recent average.
A broad political coalition along with prominent athletes, filmmakers and even the chief executive of top Swiss bank UBS, Sergio Ermotti, came out in defence of public media. The committee formed to fight No Billag warned that with a substantial majority of the country’s wealth concentrated in German-speaking areas, programming would increasingly skew to that audience.
Few comedians ever play London’s O2 Arena and fewer still manage three nights in a row. Those who do tend to have some things in common: a relatable observational style, limited creative ambition and ruthless commercial savvy. None of which applies to Flight of the Conchords, perhaps the unlikeliest act ever to reach those airless heights of the comic stratosphere.
I saw Flight of the Conchords last week, warming up for their forthcoming arena tour with a run at the 140-seat Soho theatre. Watching their suite of kooky songs about medieval romance, piano-playing seagulls and spoon thieves, laughing at their low-key chat and minutely detailed interplay, the thought of their imminent transfer to arena stages was supremely incongruous. Not least to the Conchords themselves. “We’ll keep that in for the O2,” they’d remark, after this or that improvised quip or ramshackle moment of fun.
If you first saw Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement, as I did, in a dingy cellar on the Edinburgh fringe 15 years ago, you may struggle to wrap your head around the scale of their new tour. But if you factor in a Disney film, writing an Oscar-winning song for The Muppets, a sleeper hit HBO sitcom, and the fact that this musical-comedy duo is one of the funniest and most talented acts to come along in two decades – well, an explanation begins to take shape.
It’s certainly not down to any dead-eyed careerism. In my 20 years of interviewing comics, few appeared as shambling and un-starry as McKenzie and Clement in 2003 – the year they were nominated for Edinburgh’s Perrier award. The previous year, theirs had been the festival’s breakout show, due largely to word-of-mouth enthusiasm spread by fellow comics.
Their shtick was artless banter spliced with improbable comic songs, notable for their pernickety lyrics and eclectic musicianship. Zoological rap battle Hiphopopotamus Vs Rhymenoceros was an early favourite (“They call me the Hiphopopotamus / My lyrics are bottomless” and “I’m not a large water-dwelling mammal / Where did you get that preposterous hypothesis?”). The Humans Are Dead, with its “binary solo” and robo-vocal account of the apocalypse, was another, while their Space Oddity spoof Bowie’s in Space was achingly near the mark.
With just a couple of acoustic guitars and a digital glockenspiel, they were maestros of every pop music style imaginable, although they concealed their talent with gags. “You can tell when we’ve learned a new chord,” they told me, “because we’ll use it in our next three songs.” On stage, they played losers who thought they were winners. Off stage, they were winners who pretended to be losers. They’d been invited to Hollywood to pitch a project, they told me – but “you needed a clear idea of what you wanted to do, and we didn’t have any idea at all”. So they were sent packing.
I left that interview unsure whether I’d met the “real” Clement and McKenzie or an extension of the gormless act. From the off, they excelled at scrambling truth and fiction – as per the blissful bit of onstage dialogue in which they guess when the other is in character (“You’re in … now you’re out … now you’re in …”) It helped that they took deadpan to whole new tiers of blankness.
“It’s so dry and so Kiwi,” says their compatriot and fellow comic Rose Matafeo, who is not alone in tracing much of the Conchords’ distinctiveness back to their national character. “The constant self-deprecation, the playing it straight, these are so common in New Zealand. We’re at the bottom of the world, so isolated. We’re like what would happen if you left someone alone in a room for a day.”
Jarred Christmas, another New Zealand comic, is surprised how far this took them. “I never thought there’d be an international embrace of that. I’d never seen that happen, comedy-wise.” Christmas co-starred in the Conchords’ eponymous 2005 Radio 2 sitcom, as did Jimmy Carr, Daniel Kitson and Rob Brydon (the Conchords have always surrounded themselves with fast-rising talent). “What struck me,” Christmas says, “is that no matter how laidback they are, they’ve always believed they’re good enough. You’ll notice that, on the radio show, not one of their songs was played in full. So they retained the rights, rather than those defaulting to the BBC. Clearly, they had their sights set on something bigger.”
Something bigger duly came in 2007, with the launch of the duo’s HBO sitcom, again eponymously titled. They played themselves as hapless immigrants in New York, making zero impression as a band whose manager (played by Rhys Darby) moonlights as a cultural attache at the New Zealand consulate. The series feigned to mock their homeland’s eccentricity and boringness. But, really, it celebrated those qualities. Eccentricity and boringness were the show’s touchstones, while its USP was the radical flatness of McKenzie and Clement’s performances. They took the faux-real stylings of The Office et al and ratcheted up the humdrum, but combined it with wildly incongruous bursts of song in which Bret and Jemaine’s fantasy lives paraded across the screen.
The show ran for two series, featuring soon-to-be-illustrious co-stars (Aziz Ansari, Kristen Wiig) and winning Emmy nominations. Clement and McKenzie also won a 2008 Grammy for best comedy album. The series was never more than a cult hit, in the UK at least, but its significance outstripped its ratings. It opened the world up to indie Kiwi culture and alerted American TV to overseas talent. Where McKenzie and Clement led, the likes of Trevor Noah, John Oliver and James Corden have followed. Likewise, in its depiction of failure, in its disdain for TV conventions (it was part-improvised), and in its uniquely hip brand of musical comedy, the show proved more influential than its modest impact at the time might suggest.
Conventionally, failure in comedy has been something to rail against: it’s the struggle that makes it funny. In Flight of the Conchords, there is no struggle, just placid acceptance. “It showed you didn’t have to be an alpha male,” says Christmas – and in so doing, it flew the flag for a new generation making more arty and intimate, less obvious and aggressive comedy. But it cross-fertilised that strain with the gentle surrealism of Spaced and The Mighty Boosh, to show that you could be dorky losers and rock gods, confirmed bachelors and lotharios.
Key to this were the songs, two per episode, that underscore the flights of fancy that offset (or should that be overtake?) Bret and Jemaine’s feckless real lives. The songs alter the reality, moving the plot along in unreal ways, as if singing yourself out of loser-dom really were an option. Narratively, it made tenuous sense, but you were enjoying the songs too much to care.
“One of the hardest things in musical comedy is to write a number that people want to hear again,” says Phil Nichol, of 1990s Canadian musical comedy act Corky and the Juice Pigs. “Usually, once you’ve heard the jokes at the end of each stanza, you know all you need to know. But both Jemaine and Bret are amazing musicians. They write stuff that makes you think, ‘Wow, why didn’t I write that?’ Their songs are exceptionally replayable.” Many of them match or even eclipse the tracks they pastiche – such as the Emmy-nominated Carol Brown (based on Paul Simon’s 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover), or the Peter Sarstedt take-off Rambling Through the Avenues of Time.
It’s certainly a rare feat to make musical comedy cool. A rarer feat still is to graduate from writing funny songs to winning best song Oscars, which McKenzie did in 2012 with Man or Muppet from that year’s Muppets movie. Clement’s interim career has been even more eye-catching, with voiceover roles as Fleshlumpeater in Steven Spielberg’s The BFG, as the villainous crustacean Tamatoa in Disney’s Moana, and as intergalactic criminal Boris “the Animal” in Men in Black III.
“People who discovered them at the movies have then gone back and watched Flight of the Conchords,” says Christmas. “And the sitcom did what The Office did: it stopped at its peak, arguably before its peak, so people have remained perpetually desperate for more.”
And now they’re getting it, as McKenzie and Clement touch down for the UK leg of their world tour. “They’ve just been so consistently good over their entire career,” says Matafeo, who credits the life she’s living today as a New Zealand comic, based in the UK and working internationally, to their example. “Everyone has their own special relationship with a stage of the Conchords’ career. Some people saw them early, at Edinburgh. Some people – like me – remember downloading bootlegs of their songs from the internet. And some people came to them after the sitcom finished. It’s all been so good that, whenever you encounter them, you fall in love with them.”
Even now, 64 years on, 3:59.4 is a number recognisable to every sports fan – and one that instantly unlocks sepia images in the mind’s eye. Of Sir Roger Bannister hurling his body across the line in a desperate bid to make history. Of an expectant crowd around him. And then the deafening roar – and the sweetest release – as the crowd hears he has become the first person to run the mile in under four minutes.
Sir Roger was later to become a prominent neurologist but by then he already knew the power of the mind. As he admitted, he imagined bombs and machine guns would rain down on him if he did not go at absolute full pelt.
Yet Bannister’s record for the ages, achieved on 6 May 1954, nearly never took place. For after working in a hospital that morning, he almost decided not to travel to the Iffley Road track in Oxford because of high winds.
However a chance meeting with his coach, Franz Stampfl, convinced him otherwise. Stampfl told him: “If you pass it up today you may never forgive yourself for the rest of your life.”
Yet it was only 30 minutes before the race was due to start at 6pm that Bannister decided he would compete. “My pacemakers Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway were getting a little impatient,” he told me in 2014.
“They were saying: ‘Make up your mind!’ But it was I who had to do it. I was very concerned about the weather but when the wind dropped it proved just possible.”
Bannister’s performance was more remarkable still given his lack of training. He would skip his gynaecology lectures, enabling him to run for 45 minutes at lunchtime, and did only 35 miles a week.
What is also forgotten is Bannister had felt “stale” a month before breaking the record and so had decided on a radical strategy: a three-day break to go hiking. It was, he admitted, “bordering on the lunatic”.
But there was a method to the madness. It gave Bannister time away from training and took his mind off the record attempt. His key training session involved 10 repetitions of 400m with short rest periods between each lap – his aim being to do each one in around 60 seconds.
Before his break he had struggled. Afterwards he took flight – and suddenly laps of 59 seconds felt easy. But Bannister still had to break a barrier many thought was physiologically impossible. When I spoke to him on the 60th anniversary of his achievement he talked through the race fluently but dispassionately. The anger he felt after a false start by his first pacemaker, Brasher. Then feeling so full of energy on the first lap he was shouting: “Faster!” And then the fear at the end of the 62.4sec third lap when the record appeared to be slipping away.
“I heard the lap times as they went by,” he says. “The first was 58. The half-mile 1.58. But the three‑quarters was three minutes and one second so I knew I had to produce a last lap of under 59.
“I was also unsure whether I should start my finish immediately or wait another 150 yards and overtake Chataway in the back straight. I decided I would stay a bit longer and then went. There was plenty of adrenaline then, I can assure you!”
When his effort was spent he collapsed, almost unconscious. He described feeling like “an exploded flashbulb” but he had the record. And it changed him. As he put it: “I suddenly and gloriously felt free from the burden of athletic ambition I had been carrying for years.”
His record lasted six weeks before the Australian John Landy lowered it by more than a second. But later in 1954, when the pair met at the Empire Games in Vancouver, Bannister emerged triumphant after an epic contest – later called, with complete justification, the Miracle Mile – coming from 15 yards down with a surprise sprint off the last bend.
“I felt it was a piece of unfinished business to be able to reproduce the performance of my sub-four-minute mile in a race,” Bannister said. “And I ran the final lap in the last race I had in England beforehand in 53 seconds to persuade Landy that his best chance was to run me off my feet.
“However at the half-mile he looked as though he was doing it. He was 15 yards ahead and I thought either he’s going to break a world record in 3min 56sec or he’s going to have to slow. But I managed to catch him by the bell – and then I just managed to choose the right moment to take him by surprise.”
It is often said when someone dies that “we will never see their like again” but in Bannister’s case it is almost certainly true.
For having won the Empire Games and European Championships in 1954 he then hung up his spikes aged just 25 – at his absolute prime – to focus on medicine.
Bannister admitted in 2014: “If I were to start running today I could not combine training with being a medical student.
“Most top athletes will train two-three hours a day, whereas I would run half an hour – very hard – five days a week.”
But while the last of the gentleman athletes has left us – his legacy will endure for ever. Altogether now: 3:59.4.
One of the great paradoxes of digital life – understood and exploited by the tech giants – is that we never do what we say. Poll after poll in the past few years has found that people are worried about online privacy and do not trust big tech firms with their data. But they carry on clicking and sharing and posting, preferring speed and convenience above all else. Last year was Silicon Valley’s annus horribilis: a year of bots, Russian meddling, sexism, monopolistic practice and tax-minimising. But I think 2018 might be worse still: the year of the neo-luddite, when anti-tech words turn into deeds.
The caricature of machine-wrecking mobs doesn’t capture our new approach to tech. A better phrase is what the writer Blake Snow has called “reformed luddism”: a society that views tech with a sceptical eye, noting the benefits while recognising that it causes problems, too. And more importantly, thinks that something can be done about it.
One expression of reformed luddism is already causing a headache for the tech titans. Facebook and Google are essentially huge advertising firms. Ad-blocking software is their kryptonite. Yet millions of people downloaded these plug-ins to stop ads chasing them across the web last year, and their use has been growing (on desktops at least) close to 20% each year, indiscriminately hitting smaller publishers, too.
More significantly, the whole of society seems to have woken up to the fact there is a psychological cost to constant checking, swiping and staring. A growing number of my friends now have “no phone” times, don’t instantly sign into the cafe wifi, or have weekends away without their computers. This behaviour is no longer confined to intellectuals and academics, part of some clever critique of modernity. Every single parent I know frets about “screen time”, and most are engaged in a struggle with a toddler over how much iPad is allowed. The alternative is “slow living” or “slow tech”. “Want to become a slow-tech family?” writes Janell Burley Hoffmann, one of its proponents. “Wait! Just wait – in line, at the doctor’s, for the bus, at the school pickup – just sit and wait.” Turning what used to be ordinary behaviour into a “movement” is a very modern way to go about it. But it’s probably necessary.
I would add to this the ever-growing craze for yoga, meditation, reiki and all those other things that promise inner peace and meaning – except for the fact all the techies do it, too. Maybe that’s why they do it. Either way, there is a palpable demand for anything that involves less tech, a fetish for back-to-basics. Innocent Drinks have held two “Unplugged Festivals”, offering the chance of “switching off for the weekend … No wifi, no 3G, no traditional electricity”. Others take off-grid living much further. There has been an uptick in “back to the land” movements: communes and self-sustaining communities that prefer the low-tech life. According to the Intentional Community Directory, which measures the spread of alternative lifestyles, 300 eco-villages were founded in the first 10 months of 2016, the most since the 1970s. I spent some time in 2016 living in an off-grid community where no one seemed to suffer mobile phone separation anxiety. No one was frantically checking if their last tweet went viral and we all felt better for it.
Even insiders are starting to wonder what monsters they’ve unleashed. Former Google “design ethicist” Tristan Harris recently founded the nonprofit organisation Time Well Spent in order to push back against what he calls a “digital attention crisis” of our hijacked minds. Most of the tech conferences I’m invited to these days include this sort of introspection: is it all going too far? Are we really the good guys?
That tech firms are responding is proof they see this is a serious threat: many more are building in extra parental controls, and Facebook admitted last year that too much time on their site was bad for your health, and promised to do something. Apple investors recently wrote to the company, suggesting the company do more to “ensure that young consumers are using your products in an optimal manner” – a bleak word combination to describe phone-addled children, but still.
It’s worth reflecting what a radical change all this is. That economic growth isn’t everything, that tech means harm as well as good – this is not the escape velocity, you-can’t-stop-progress thinking that has colonised our minds in the past decade. Serious writers now say things that would have been unthinkable until last year: even the FT calls for more regulation and the Economist asks if social media is bad for democracy.
This reformed luddism does not however mean the end of good, old-fashioned machine-smashing. The original luddites did not dislike machines per se, rather what they were doing to their livelihoods and way of life. It’s hard not to see the anti-Uber protests in a similar light. Over the past couple of years, there have been something approaching anti-Uber riots in Paris; in Hyderabad, India, drivers took to the streets to vent their rage against unmet promises of lucrative salaries; angry taxi drivers blocked roads last year across Croatia, Hungary and Poland. In Colombia, there were clashes with police, while two Uber vehicles were torched in Johannesburg and 30 metered taxi drivers arrested.
Imagine what might happen when driverless cars turn up. The chancellor has recently bet on them, promising investment and encouraging real road testing; he wants autonomous vehicles on our streets by 2021. The industry will create lots of new and very well-paid jobs, especially in robotics, machine learning and engineering. For people with the right qualifications, that’s great. And for the existing lorry and taxi drivers? There will still be some jobs, since even Google tech won’t be able to handle Swindon’s magic roundabout for a while. But we will need far fewer of them. A handful might retrain, and claw their way up to the winner’s table. I am told repeatedly in the tech startup bubble that unemployed truckers in their 50s should retrain as web developers and machine-learning specialists, which is a convenient self-delusion. Far more likely is that, as the tech-savvy do better than ever, many truckers or taxi drivers without the necessary skills will drift off to more precarious, piecemeal, low-paid work.
Does anyone seriously think that drivers will passively let this happen, consoled that their great-grandchildren may be richer and less likely to die in a car crash? And what about when Donald Trump’s promised jobs don’t rematerialise, because of automation rather than offshoring and immigration? Given the endless articles outlining how “robots are coming for your jobs”, it would be extremely odd if people didn’t blame the robots, and take it out on them, too.
Once people start believing that machines are a force of oppression rather than liberation, there will be no stopping it. Between 1978 and 1995, the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, sent 16 bombs to targets including universities and airlines, killing three people and injuring 23. Kaczynski, a Harvard maths prodigy who began to live off-grid in his 20s, was motivated by a belief that technological change was destroying human civilisation, ushering in a period of dehumanised tyranny and control. Once you get past Kaczynski’s casual racism and calls for violent revolution, his writings on digital technology now seem uncomfortably prescient. He predicted super-intelligent machines dictating society, the psychological ill-effects of tech-reliance and the prospect of obscene inequality as an elite of techno-savvies run the world.
The American philosopher John Zerzan is considered the intellectual heavyweight for the anarcho-primitivist movement, whose adherents believe that technology enslaves us. They aren’t violent, but boy do they do hate tech. During the Unabomber’s trial, Zerzan became a confidant to Kaczynski, offering support for his ideas while condemning his actions. Zerzan is finding himself invited to speak at many more events, and the magazine he edits has seen a boost in sales. “Something’s going on,” he tells me – by phone, ironically. “The negative of technology is now taken as a given.” I ask if he could forsee the emergence of another Unabomber. “I think it’s inevitable,” he says. “As things get worse, you’re not going to stop it any other way,” although he adds that he hopes it doesn’t involve violence against people.
There are signs that full-blown neo-luddism is already here. In November last year, La Casemate, a tech “fab lab” based in Grenoble, France, was vandalised and burned. The attackers called it “a notoriously harmful institution by its diffusion of digital culture”. The previous year, a similar place in Nantes was targeted. Aside from an isolated incident in Mexico in 2011, this is, as far as I can tell, the first case since the Unabomber of an act of violence targeting technology explicitly as technology, rather than just a proxy for some other problem. The French attackers’ communique was published by the environmentalist/anarchist journal Earth First! and explained how the internet’s promise of liberation for anticapitalists has evaporated amid more surveillance, more control, more capitalism. “Tonight, we burned the Casemate,” it concludes. “Tomorrow, it will be something else, and our lives will be too short, in prison or in free air, because everything we hate can burn.”
If the recent speculation about jobs and AI is even close to being correct, then fairly soon “luddite” will join far-right and Islamist on the list of government-defined extremisms. Perhaps anti-tech movements will even qualify for the anti-radicalisation Prevent programme.
No one wants machines smashed or letter bombs. The wreckers failed 200 years ago and will fail again now. But a little luddism in our lives won’t hurt. The realisation that technological change isn’t always beneficial nor inevitable is long overdue, and that doesn’t mean jettisoning all the joys associated with modern technology. You’re not a fogey for thinking there are times where being disconnected is good for you. You’re just not a machine.
Getting barraged with bad reviews on a site such as TripAdvisor has become the bane of every restaurant owner’s existence – but the negative reviews culture has spread well beyond places to eat out.
Google’s recent decision to allow anyone to review any business building in the world has led to UK courts and police stations facing a flurry of reviews. The verdict? Mixed, to say the least.
Would-be visitors to the Thames magistrates court in east London – 1.8 ★ and 19 reviews – are warned to “beware of these magistrates and their advisers who withhold this knowledge from the community to mislead us”, are warned of “unprofessional service”, and told “they are all underqualified and useless, even the judges”.
Things get worse at Highbury magistrates court, with a 1.2 ★ average and 45 reviews that include: “My hardworking tax is being spent on giving people sex changes and aborting babies while law, access to justice and other essential components of our democracy are forever being further eroded”; and “Kafkaesque in the extreme”. Stratford’s court averages just 1.4 ★, thanks to “lifeless and unhelpful” staff and “very poor” service.
Westminster magistrates court has a few extra problems of its own, thanks to its recent ruling by chief magistrate Emma Arbuthnot against Julian Assange’s appeal. “Chief ‘Justice’ Emma ‘Aaargh But Not’ decided to bodyline Julian Assange today,” says a one-star review. “She should lower her head in shame. This Assange thing is a total fraud.”
Outside of London, courts are picking up fewer reviews, and there’s even the odd good one. Courts in Bolton get mixed ratings, with one suffering a one-star “rubbish” review, but another getting a five-star: “Sitting in on the trials was a good day out, would do again for the laughs.”
Happily, not every building picking up unsolicited Google Maps reviews is getting pilloried. The Guardian offices have been reviewed by 61 people and have a respectable 4.4 ★ average. A three-star review remarks “good journalism and general nosey people”, a four-star says “work there”, while a five-star one praises the “modern design, spacious offices for the newspaper staff”.
We live in a world of trouble. Conflicts today may be much less lethal than those that scarred the last century, but this brings little comfort. We remain deeply anxious. We can blame terrorism and the fear it inspires despite the statistically unimportant number of casualties it inflicts, or the contemporary media and the breathless cycle of “breaking news”, but the truth remains that the wars that seem to inspire the fanatics or have produced so many headlines in recent years prompt deep anxiety. One reason is that these wars appear to have no end in sight.
To explain these conflicts we reach for easy binary schema – Islam v the west; haves against have-nots; nations that “play by the rules” of the international system against “rogues”. We also look to grand geopolitical theories – the end of the Westphalian system, the west faced by “the rise of the rest” – or even just attribute the violence to “geography”. None of these explanations seems to adequately allay our concerns.
This week Mohammad bin Salman, the young Saudi Arabian crown prince, will be in London. One topic he will be discussing with British policymakers is the war raging since 2015 in its neighbour Yemen, where Saudi forces lead an alliance of regional powers against Houthi rebels. The war, part of a Saudi policy of adopting a more aggressive external posture, is not going well. It is a stalemate which has left thousands of civilians dead.
Last week Ashraf Ghani, Afghanistan’s embattled president, announced a bold plan to draw the Taliban into a binding peace process. Commentators spoke of a last desperate gamble to bring an end to conflict that has gone on so long that there are western soldiers soon to be deployed to the country who were in nappies when it started in 2001.
In Syria, where the civil war is now in its seventh year, there is no respite either. Ghouta, a rebel-held suburb of Damascus, is under daily bombardment after years of siege. Militia manoeuvre for advantage across the country. If anyone thought the fall of Raqqa, the headquarters of Islamic State (Isis), would bring an end to hostilities, they were sadly mistaken.
Nor are these “long wars” – which could include Somalia (at war since 1991) or Libya (since 2011) or Mali (since 2012) – restricted to the Islamic world. There is South Sudan, where a vicious four-year-old civil war is intensifying, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where more protests ended in bloodshed last week. The east of the DRC was the crucible of a huge conflict that killed 5 million people between 1997 and 2003 and has remained unstable ever since. Thousands have died and millions have been displaced by conflict there in the last 18 months as anarchy overcomes swaths of the vast country.
To understand the duration of these conflicts we need to understand their nature. Most analysis focuses on states. This is inevitable. Our maps show the world divided into nations. These are the building blocks of our political, legal, social and economic systems and, as has become so obvious in recent years, key to our identity. In Afghanistan, the war is both to establish a state, and about differing visions of what form it should take. In Syria, the war is to maintain, or overthrow, a state. In Yemen, the war is to control one. In the DRC, the conflict’s roots lie in the weakness of the state.
States have also prolonged these conflicts and, in some cases, caused them. Russia’s irredentist ambitions in Ukraine, Pakistan’s interference in Afghanistan. The involvement of so many regional and international actors in Syria fuelling, whether deliberately or accidentally, violence.
Yet, however important, states are far from the only protagonists in these conflicts. In two decades of covering dozens of conflicts around the world, I have reported on just two that involved the troops of two nations in direct confrontation. One was the short war between India and Pakistan in 1999; the second was the war in Iraq in 2003. According to researchers at the University of California, there are none more recent.
The front lines in these new conflicts often follow boundaries that divide clans or castes, not countries. They lie along frontiers between ethnic or sectarian communities, even those dividing, for example, pastoralists from herders or the landed from the landless, from those who speak one dialect or language from neighbours who speak another. These frontlines are not difficult to trace, on the map or on the ground.
In fact, if we look around the world at all its many conflicts, and if we define these wars more broadly, then we see frontlines everywhere, each with its own no man’s land strewn with casualties. In Mexico, Brazil, South Africa or the Philippines, there is huge violence associated with criminality and the efforts (by states) to stamp it out. There is violence perpetrated against women by those who fear progress in the struggle for a more equitable distribution of power, status and wealth. There is economic violence – how else to describe the deaths of 1,000 people in a building collapse in Bangladesh in 2013 or, in DRC again, the injuries to miners digging out critical commodities to the world’s industries?
Our world may not be racked by conventional conflicts between nation states of previous ages, but it is still a very violent place. The harsh reality may be that we should not be wondering why wars seem so intractable today, but why our time on this planet creates such intractable wars.
The conflict in Syria will soon enter its eighth year and, though the fighting that once consumed much of the country has now been restricted to a much smaller area, the chance of real peace still looks very distant. The best that anyone can hope for is a slow evolution towards a precarious pause punctuated by bouts of appalling brutality as the regime of Bashar al-Assad, bolstered by support from Moscow and Tehran, makes efforts to reassert its authority over the shattered country.
What such efforts involve has become clear recently. In the last few weeks, air strikes by Syrian planes have killed more than 600 civilians in Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus held by the opposition since 2013.
Although Isis has now been forced from almost all of its territory in Syria, other hardline Islamist groups remain very active, including one powerful organisation linked to al-Qaida. Armed opposition groups continue to receive logistical support and funding from the United States, Turkey and several Gulf countries. A Kurdish group has seized a swath of territory in the north-east. Successive efforts at peace negotiations have all failed.
Why has the war lasted so long? The Syrian war has always been immensely complex, fought out along national, sectarian, ideological and ethnic divides. This alone would have guaranteed a lengthy conflict, even without the involvement of regional and international actors. The UN has been marginalised by power politics. The US has stood back. The result has been massive suffering and a broken country which, even if peace can be achieved, will need up to a trillion dollars to reconstruct itself. The toxic effects of the conflict have been felt across the world.
The chaos, and resulting war, in Yemen is now in its seventh year. The immediate roots of the current conflict lie in the aftermath of an Arab spring-inspired uprising in Yemen, the Arab region’s poorest country, that forced its veteran leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to step down in favour of his deputy Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi in 2011.
But other causes lie deeper.
Yemen, once a British colony, has never been stable, and was only united after brutal conflicts in the 1990s. For more than a decade before the crisis of 2011, corruption, unemployment, food shortages, a powerful tribal system, entrenched separatism in the south, and the involvement of regional powers had combined to maintain high levels of instability.
Jihadi fighters had long been a force in Yemen, developing into a powerful local al-Qaida affiliate. A popular backlash against US counter-terrorism operations, which included drone strikes, and overspill of militants from Saudi Arabia exacerbated a complicated situation. This meant President Hadi was faced by huge challenges on taking power.
Chief among them was insurgency led by the Houthis, a minority Shia rebel group based in the north of Yemen with a long history of rebellion against the Sunni-dominated government.
The insurgents seized Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, in January 2015, forcing Hadi and his government to resign. This prompted regional involvement which has led to a humanitarian crisis putting millions at risk of starvation. A coalition of Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia – which received US, British and European logistical and intelligence support – launched air strikes against the Houthis. It has also blockaded Yemen to stop Iran smuggling weapons to the rebels. Tehran denies the charge.
Why has the war lasted so long? Fiendishly complicated tribal and sectarian dynamics ensure that no single faction is strong enough to win, while external involvement ensures all can stay in the fight. The conflict has drawn in more than a dozen countries and is linked to broader regional contests for power. A federal deal might bring peace but seems unlikely right now.
Democratic Republic of Congo
Should the Democratic Republic of the Congo slide back into the kind of conflict seen in the vast state between 1997 and 2003, it is likely that the intervening years of very relative calm will be forgotten. The six-year war, that started more than 20 years ago, was prompted by the fall of President Mobutu Sese Seko and exacerbated by the involvement of all regional powers, many attracted simply by the opportunity to loot the country’s mineral and metal resources. These still remain a draw, even if there is no current appetite among its neighbours to risk the sort of chaos that led to the deaths of more than 5 million people.
Yet the signs of deterioration are there: a weak central authority under President Joseph Kabila, who has outstayed his mandate by 15 months; crumbling law and order in places where there was never much government control; a growing conflict between warlords and ethnic communities; a fractured opposition; a distracted international community; and huge humanitarian need.
Will the war restart? The killing and the dying has started already, with a violent rebel movement in the Kasai region prompting a brutal government response that has led to mass displacement. Cholera and other diseases surge through vulnerable populations. The United Nations deployment in the DRC suffers increasing attacks, with the deaths of 14 peacekeepers in December, the worst single loss suffered by the organisation since 1993.
Elections are due to be held in December, though many doubt they will take place. The polls are a chance to arrest the slide of one of Africa’s most important states back into even greater poverty and conflict. Few are optimistic.
Afghanistan has not known peace since the mid-1970s. The current conflict, which pits the Taliban and other Islamist extremists against the government in Kabul, started in 2001 with the US-led invasion that followed the 9/11 attacks. The US has supported, first President Hamid Karzai and then his successor, Ashraf Ghani, with huge amounts of military and other aid. More than 2,000 US soldiers have died, 10 times as many Afghan soldiers, and at least 30,000 civilians. Yet the Taliban today is active in more than two-thirds of Afghanistan’s administrative districts, though it controls fewer than one in 20. In 2015, the movement temporarily seized northern the city of Kunduz.
Why has the war lasted so long? One reason is strategic mistakes made by the US and allies in the immediate years after the 2001 invasion. The effort in Afghanistan was poorly resourced and misdirected. Missed early opportunities to construct a stable political settlement and score relatively easy military victories proved expensive.
Another key factor is the involvement of regional powers, primarily Pakistan. Islamabad sees having a friendly government in Kabul as critical to its strategic security and has backed the Taliban as a proxy, providing logistic aid and a safe haven to leaders.
But there are other reasons. Almost all areas where support for the Taliban is high are dominated by the Pashtun ethnic group, especially those controlled by certain tribes. Opium-growing zones are also prominent. It is striking how closely the map of Taliban influence today mirrors that of 20 years ago, when the movement surged to power. Then, as now, Afghanistan’s reputation as the “graveyard of empires” rests on solid, if fractured, ground.
In February, it was four years since Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, annexed Crimea and helped foment a rebellion in the industrial east of Ukraine, “a former ‘Soviet republic” independent since 1991 that lies on one of the greatest cultural and linguistic fracture lines in the world today.
Thousands – fighters and civilians –have died. Late last year, aid agencies warned that 4.4 million people have been directly affected by the continuing hostilities, while 3.8 million need urgent assistance.
The war’s roots lie in 2013, when tens of thousands protested in Kiev and elsewhere, accusing the then government of backtracking on plans to sign a EU trade deal following pressure from the Kremlin. The government used violence against protesters, who ousted President Viktor Yanukovych the following year. This led to unrest in Russophone areas in east and south Ukraine. Fighting between government forces and Russia-backed separatists continued into 2015, with Moscow denying Kiev’s claims that it was sending troops and heavy weapons to the region.
The “Minsk agreement” stipulated a ceasefire and a special constitutional status for the rebel-held territories of the Donbass region, which would reintegrate into Ukraine and hold elections. None of that has come into effect and the number of ceasefire violations runs into the thousands. More than 100 Ukrainian soldiers were killed in the Donbass region last year, according to official figures. A squalid but deadly conflict has ground on since on the very borders of Europe, receiving ever less attention from the international community.
Why has the war lasted so long? Moscow has little intention of abandoning hard-won gains, despite pressure from economics sanctions. Europe and the US do not want to risk a confrontation. Sentiments within the Ukraine are as polarised as ever. Dubbed an “invisible” or “frozen” conflict, there is little sign of any shift that might break the deadlock.
Angela Merkel’s new coalition government is testament to her skill as the great survivor, and to the unwisdom of underestimating her ability to outmanoeuvre opponents. Alliances of Germany’s two main parties are dubbed “elephant coalitions”. The one agreed this morning lumbers into life on very different terms from the last GroKo (grand coalition). “Two tired elephants, dancing for the last time,” was the verdict of one speaker at the recent special conference of the Social Democratic party (SPD), calling for an end to deals with “the Merkelator” and her Christian Democrats.
In the end, she prevailed by a decent margin. There was a two-thirds majority among SPD members for remaining in the coalition, while a third backed a youth-led campaign to shake up left-of-centre politics.
But the difficulty in delivering the coalition (five months since the election) marks a change that will resonate beyond Germany’s borders. It shows the renewed power of party grassroots, and the increasing influence of members over grandees.
For one thing, this deal placed Merkel’s fate squarely in the hands of SPD members (including 20,000 new sign-ups) – a move that has given voice to the left of the party. A two-thirds vote of support for GroKo is fine for Merkel – but much less so for the SPD, digesting poor election results and with a probable new leader, Andrea Nahles. She will need to apply pressure on the new government for a clearer leftish agenda – to prevent the one-third of disappointed SPD members from turning into a Corbyn-inspired movement for sweeping change.
Yet the greatest challenge to business-as-usual comes from another base: Merkel’s Christian Democrat party, from whose restless ranks her successor will emerge. The promotion to party secretary of Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, a flinty Christian Democrat from the Saarland in western Germany, marks a departure from years of Merkel-worship and redistributes power in the party from a close-knit pro-Merkel faction in Berlin.
“AKK” this week described dealings with Merkel as a “good, balanced relationship of trust and respect”. It’s a tone that cannily pays its dues to Merkel’s leadership, while putting Kramp-Karrenbauer herself at eye-level with the chancellor, and speaking for members – underlining that they have been taken for granted.
Kramp-Karrenbauer tartly observes that the party’s list of broad policy objectives has barely changed since 2007 – “the year the first iPhone was released”. Lines of dissent with the SPD lurk in her assertion that not enough has been done in Berlin to address the integration of the refugees the chancellor welcomed in large numbers in 2015. And she has pointed out, in language sharper than has been conventional on Team Merkel, that voters are “furious that people coming here for protection and aid have lied about their ages and countries of origin”.
If Merkel has previously swept aside unease on this issue, she must now deal more openly with anxieties about integration and the details of how to deal with irritations and fears that arise from it. She said last Monday that Germany had “no-go areas”, where police and public fear to tread. That frankness, if handled with good sense by the coalition, could keep at bay the far right, which has risen in part because conservative voters felt their concerns went unheard.
It may, in the short term, give Alternative for Germany (AfD) more “told-you-so” ammunition with which to make trouble in its new strengthened role in parliament. The Merkel-led coalition intends to head that off by capping annual refugee numbers at 220,000 (a concession for a chancellor who refused a cap in 2015).
Germany’s good fortune, however, is that a healthy budget surplus means there is money to deal with the difficulties. Its left wing will be happy to get more childcare, and curbs on short-term contracts. And for the right there will be some tax cuts and a more forthright acknowledgment of the difficulties of openness to refugees.
The most troublesome conundrum after all this is that it will be hard to convince the sizeable chunk of voters who drifted to parties of the far left, far right and the Greens last year that one more dance of Germany’s elephants represents a radical shift. The AfD in particular will gain more oxygen as the official opposition party.
For Europe (and Britain approaching Brexit), there will be little change. Merkel signals emphatically in private that she sees the French president, Emmanuel Macron, as sharing her worldview, and will use her remaining time to consolidate that link. Theresa May’s declared “trade-offs” will have to be approved, like it or not, by a renewed Franco-German duopoly. A weakened SPD makes the coalition even more avidly pro-EU. So the new alliance will move faster on European fiscal integration, and seek to edge towards a combined eurozone budget, though at a cautious pace.
None of this is easy listening for May. Her Brexit secretary, David Davis, has pre-emptively been seeking better relations with Team Macron – tacit acceptance by the cabinet’s Brexiteers that appealing to Merkel to break the logjam with EU negotiators has not worked. But it is still Germany, as the EU’s most successful economy, that will remain the biggest influence on what kind of Europe emerges from the continent’s recent convulsions. On that, Merkel is where she aims to be in her final stint at the helm – unchallenged.
It’s quiet – too quiet.” It was, I think, John Wayne who first drawled that line of knowing scepticism, in the 1934 B-movie western The Lucky Texan. But it seems no less apt this week, as the Tory prairie remains suspiciously peaceful in response to Theresa May’s speech on Brexit, delivered at the Mansion House on Friday. True, Michael Heseltine has performed his quasi-constitutional role as lord privy Europhile by dismissing the prime minister’s remarks as no more than “phrases, generalisations and platitudes”. There are reports too of a dirty tricks operation at No 10 to undermine the foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, (vigorously denied all round).
Yet the Conservative reaction to the speech has been remarkably cordial. Less than a week ago, it was bellicose business as usual. On the eve of the prime minister’s big speech, John Major declared that “many electors know they were misled” over Brexit, that “many more are beginning to realise it”, and: “The electorate has every right to reconsider their decision.”
The reality TV star and occasional MP Nadine Dorries branded Major a traitor for his outrageous suggestion that the public might be consulted again on Britain’s EU departure. And quite right too: this is obviously no time for careful reflection, caution or hard-won wisdom – the telltale sneaky weapons of “saboteurs”, “enemies of the people” and other foes of the popular will.
Yet the gunfire that preceded May’s speech has, for now, fallen almost entirely silent. On the blasted mud of no man’s land, you can see Jacob Rees-Mogg kicking the ball amiably to Anna Soubry, who heads it back to Iain Duncan Smith. Where there was discord, there is, as St Francis of Assisi might observe, a sudden and unexpected harmony. Or so it seems.
Why so? First because, of all May’s significant strategic interventions on Brexit to date, this was the crunchiest and most substantial: plunging into the weeds of policy, recognising some of the “hard facts” of what lies ahead, and acknowledging that “no one will get everything they want”. Much of what has been obvious but unstated was at last made explicit.
There was also something for everyone, which is another way of saying that detail is not the same as decisiveness. For the Brexiteers, there was the repeated guarantee that Britain will leave the single market and customs union; that, in due course, parliament can diverge from EU standards as much as it sees fit; and that May herself will not countenance “anything that would damage the integrity” of the UK. On the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show today, she was emphatic that “we would just be a rule-taker” if “financial passporting” – the special arrangements that allow banks and other City companies to operate across the EU – were left in place.
For remainers, on the other hand, there was the reassurance that Britain will continue to be associated with a host of EU agencies; that May will adopt a practical approach to the future role of the European court of justice; and that, on workers’ rights and other social protections, “We will not engage in a race to the bottom.”
The second driver of the present Tory truce – though few Conservatives will admit it – is undoubtedly Jeremy Corbyn’s shift of position last week on Britain’s future relationship with the EU customs union. The Labour leader’s subordination, after much deliberation, of his career-long Eurosceptic instincts to an overtly political strategy has brought home to those Conservative MPs who are paying attention that Corbyn is not just the man who might be propelled into No 10 by Tory incompetence. He really wants the job, and he intends to get it. The Tories are spooked, as well they might be.
As an exercise in tactical party management, therefore, May’s speech was a success. But that’s all it was. The Conservative dilemma over Europe is structural rather than specific. It has bedevilled the party for 30 years, destroying its last three prime ministers, and it may yet claim a fourth before too long.
Here’s the irony: David Cameron’s referendum gamble was meant to solve the problem once and for all, but it has had the bleak effect of compounding it. The wisdom of his decision remains a matter of fierce debate at Tory tables. But he is not to blame for the deeper tribal pathology, which has been reinforced rather than resolved.
One half of the Conservative psyche, well described in an essay by William Davies in the current London Review of Books, is positively drawn to the stoic challenge of Brexit, believing that “toughness, even pain, performs an important moral and psychological function in pushing people to come up with solutions”.
In fundamental tension with this is an alliance of older Tories, who believe in the postwar dream of European harmony, and of pragmatic Conservatives who consider exit from the world’s largest single market and one of its most powerful alliances to be an act of collective self-harm.
I think they are right. But that is not the point. The gulf between the two positions – stoic independence versus practical internationalism – is ultimately unbridgeable. One must prevail, and the moment of victory and defeat has been deferred, not confronted. There is much political blood left to be shed, as each chapter of the negotiations unfolds.
“Now is not the time to nitpick,” wrote Rees-Mogg in Saturday’s Telegraph. But – by heavy implication – that time will come again. The prime minister’s speech was a mere sticking plaster on an old and suppurating wound. Enjoy the peace while it lasts, for it will not last long.
What I love about Disney films is the way they always celebrate good old-fashioned family values. Princes go around kissing random unconscious women, for example, and there are various inter-species relationships between beauties and beasts or men and mermaids. It’s all very wholesome.
So, when news recently came out that Frozen 2 may include a lesbian relationship, right-thinking people were immediately outraged. I mean, can you imagine the message that would send to children?!
Degenerate Frozen fans have long suspected that Elsa might harbor lesbian tendencies and have internet-campaigned to #GiveElsaAGirlfriend. In an interview with the Huffington Post, Frozen director Jennifer Lee responded to questions about whether Elsa might, indeed, get a female love interest with: “we’ll see where we go.”
The HuffPo immediately translated this non-answer into a headline announcing there was a “Glimmer of Hope” Elsa was going gay, and the media then turned this glimmer into a firestorm.
Now there are petitions asking Disney not to cave into the sinister lesbian agenda and various conservatives are clutching their pearls and screaming about the upcoming gaypocalypse.
You’d think, what with the state of the world today, a fictional character’s sexuality might be at the bottom of people’s ‘things I’m going to get mad about’ list. You’d think they might be able to let it go. But, no, that’s not the way things work today.
Outrage appears to be an infinitely renewable resource and everyone is mad about everything all the time. It can be hard to keep up with it all, so I have helpfully put together a guide to other indignities the internet couldn’t let go of this week.
Barbara Streisand is an evil dog-cloner
Perhaps the most White Person thing I have ever done is spend $60 getting my adopted mutt a DNA test, because I wanted him to know more about his family background. The DNA test was completely wrong, by the way, but that’s another story. This story is about Barbara Streisand who took ‘crazy dog lady’ to a whole other level.
In a recent interview with Variety, Streisand casually mentioned that two of her three Coton de Tulear dogs had been cloned from cells taken from her late dog, Samantha. People immediately went berserk and this was one of the rare instances where outrage was bipartisan.
The right tweeted things like: “Trump hating Barbra Streisand spent $100,000 to clone 2 dogs while in her city women and children go hungry, homeless and no medical care.” The left tweeted things like: “not rescuing a dog out of the millions in need of it and instead paying absurd amounts of money to clone one is PEAK rich white people.”
Peta obviously got involved in the debate and urged people to adopt, not clone. Call me cynical, but I really don’t think Streisand is going to start a trend of people paying $100,000 to clone their dog. Perhaps we should just let the lady clone her pets in peace and worry about other things.
It’s actually really mean to call a white person ‘colonizer’
Speaking of white people – which we rarely do, I know – some of them are a little peeved at the moment because ‘colonizer’ is taking off as an insult. This is thanks to Black Panther where there’s a hilarious scene in which Shuri says: “Don’t scare me like that colonizer!” to a white guy whose name I have forgotten.
Now it appears white people are getting called ‘colonizer’ in real life when they do things that smack of privilege. Some white people are very upset and uncomfortable about this. So please don’t hurt any white people’s feelings by saying the nasty C-word. Not to mention, it’s just really unfair when People of Colour lump People of No Colour together into some sort of homogenous group, OK?
It’s the perfect time of the month for a period drama
Women have been saying for centuries that period pain is excruciating. But, I mean, women are prone to being a little hysterical. It’s best to take everything they say with a pinch of salt and consult a man for a second opinion. So I’m happy to announce John Guillebaud, professor of reproductive health at University College London, recently told Quartz that his patients have described menstruation pain as “almost as bad as having a heart attack.”
Guillebaud didn’t finish this with “and we should believe them” or anything. It was literally just a male figure of authority reporting his patients’ comments – and yet it made international news.
Media outlets from India to Australia to Arizona covered the story. Excuse me, but next time I get cramps I am calling the papers and telling them to hold the front page. Anyway, as you can imagine these headlines immediately started a gender war on the internet, with lots of outraged men saying there is absolutely no scientific evidence to prove menstruation – or even childbirth, for that matter – is any more painful than their stubbed toe.
You know, I think that whatever your own feelings or experience on this matter, it’s important that we women pipe down for once and just listen to men.
I stand before you as an emissary for a cool and obscure minority. You see, I am one of a dying breed. I am married. Statistically, nobody else in the country is married. Not even my wife.
Marriage between opposite-sex couples has fallen to an all-time low. The Office for National Statistics has revealed that just 239,020 marriages took place in 2015, almost half the number that took place in 1940, and people are in uproar about it. “Britain already languishes in shame at the bottom of the developed world league table for family stability,” said a spokesperson from the Marriage Foundation, which is apparently a thing, on hearing the news.
Worse still, the age of people getting married is also increasing. The average newlywed is now 36 years old, which means that marriage has become a solidly middle-aged activity. The only people who get married any more are people who enjoy laughing at Jeremy Vine’s radio programme while driving their Volvo to Homebase. I haven’t researched this, but I’m certain that most wedding lists now just contain requests for Werthers Originals and vouchers for a Bupa hip replacement.
It doesn’t have to be this way. From personal experience, I can assure you that being married is fantastic. I have now been married for three-and-a-half years, and I don’t think I’ve ever felt so content. I feel like part of a team. We have weathered a lot in the past few years. Too much, even – all manner of births and fires and illnesses and deaths that have frazzled us beyond words – but at least we have weathered them together. At best, we’ve formed a bond that will last an eternity. At worst, we have made it financially inconvenient to leave each other if we get too fed up. What’s not to love?
Of course, you’ll notice that I said “being married” in that last paragraph and not “getting married”. Getting married is the worst. Weddings are awful. Planning and executing a wedding is like doing a terrible version of The Krypton Factor, where every obstacle is designed to part you from as much money as possible. When you get engaged, you want to share your happy day with all the people you love. But by the time you actually get married, those people have transformed into walking piles of cash that you wish you had never spent. Also, at least in my experience, you’ll often find that many of your partner’s coworkers will gatecrash your reception and drive the venue’s capacity far above its fire safety limit, and as a result you’ll spend the rest of your life harbouring a simmering resentment for their employer. Frankly, weddings can do one.
But marriage is great. You should definitely try it. I mean, you won’t, because rents are so gigantic that you can barely even afford to live in a grotty flatshare while travelling to and from a job that’s slowly destroying your will to live, and something as ostentatious as a wedding is quite rightly your lowest priority. But eventually. You should definitely try marriage eventually. It’s the sensible, mature, adult thing to do.
Sure, the responsibility and commitment of marriage pale into insignificance next to the responsibility and commitment of other grown-up activities such as owning a house and having kids, which means that marriage is essentially just a big, expensive, meaningless party to which you only invite people out of a crushing sense of obligation. But it’s nice. Honestly, give it a go. Do it for the man from the Marriage Foundation. He’s doing his nut over there.
We can all learn a lot from Vladimir Putin
Now, I realise that only bigots and taxi drivers start arguments by saying “We could learn a lot from Vladimir Putin”. But, that being said, we could actually learn a lot from Vladimir Putin. Did you see his press conference on Thursday? The one where he announced a fleet of apparently invincible nuclear weapons with such verve and flair that he may as well have been unveiling a new iPhone? It was incredible. It was so fundamentally terrifying that I lost three fingernails trying to claw an underground bunker out of frozen earth but, man, that guy can sell.
Nobody seems fully sure whether Putin’s new line of undetectable, unpredictable, unstoppable low-altitude nuclear missiles are real or just preposterous pre-election bluster. But that doesn’t really matter. During the final half of his speech, Putin basically just chatted over animated footage of incomprehensible destruction, including – rather ballsily – a scene where dozens of nuclear missiles rained down on Mar-A-Lago. It was roughly the equivalent of Theresa May breaking off from a big Brexit speech to treat everyone to a Blu-ray presentation of The Day After Tomorrow.
So perhaps this is what will break the stale, say-nothing political landscape of Britain in 2018. Forget nuance. Forget conciliation. What we need now is blazing, boggle-eyed hyperbole. May or Corbyn, I don’t care who, you need to grab a stage and promise a kaleidoscope of bloodthirsty vengeance, the likes of which humanity has never seen. You should release a party political broadcast made of nothing but screaming and explosions and boiling eyeballs. You should ride around topless on a horse, surveying the damage while wearing a crown made of your enemies’ shattered skulls.
Yes, it would be horrifying and immoral and we would still be mired in Brexit, but at least it would be interesting.
Naming storms robs them of their dignity
Can we all agree to stop naming individual bursts of weather. Remember the great storm of 1987? Now that was a storm with dignity. That was a storm that said “chisel me into the annals of history”. Three decades on, Michael Fish mistake aside, it still sounds like a moment of national importance. But the Beast From the East? That sounds like a wrestler. In fact, it’s nearly the nickname of late WWE star Bam Bam Bigelow. Thirty years from now, you’ll tell your children about the Beast From the East and they will laugh. And rightly so.