A tawaki or rainforest penguin. Photo: Getty
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Two new poems by Clive James

The author, critic and broadcaster writes two new poems - “Nature Programme” and “The Emperor’s Last Words” - exclusively for the New Statesman.

Nature Programme

The female panda is on heat
For about five minutes a year
And the male, no sprinter at the best of times,
Hardly ever gets there
Before she cools off again.
In the South Island of New Zealand
There is a rain forest
With penguins in it.
They trot along the dangerous trails
Towards the booming ocean
Where albatross chicks in training
For their very first take-off
Are snatched by tiger sharks
Cruising in water
No deeper than your thighs.
Doomed to the atrophy of lust,
Lurching with their flippers out,
Dragged under as they strain for flight,
They could be you:
Wonder of nature that you were.

The Emperor’s Last Words

An army that never leaves its defences
Is bound to be defeated, said Napoleon,
Who left them, and was defeated.
And thus I gather my remaining senses
For the walk, or limp, to town
Where I have a haircut and visit
The Oxfam bookshop near the bridge.
Only a day out of Addenbrooke’s
Where another bout of pneumonia
Damned near nailed me,
I walk slowly now, sitting on low brick walls.
But the haircut is successful,
Completing my resemblance to Buzz Aldrin
On the surface of Jupiter,
And in the bookshop I get, for my niece,
The Penguin Book of English Verse
(John Hayward’s excellent anthology)
And the old, neat, thin-paper OUP edition
Of the Louise and Aylmer Maude translation
Of War and Peace, so handy for the pocket.
Still in her teens, already reading everything,
She wants to be a writer, and when she visits me
She gets a useful lesson
On how a writer can end up.
But things could have been worse:
I could have been married to Laura Riding,
Whose collected poems I purchase for myself.
Have twenty years of death improved her verses?
No, still stridently incomprehensible, befitting
The way she won an argument with Robert Graves
By throwing herself backwards from a window:
A token, no doubt, of an artistic commitment
The purity of whose achievements was proved
By being intelligible to nobody at all
Except her fellow fruit-cakes.
Well, she sure left her defences.
Almost everyone wants to be a writer.
My niece, however, has got the knack:
That feeling for a sentence, you can’t mistake it.
The only question is how far you will go,
Even walking ever so slowly,
Away from your fortress. All the way to Russia?
But Tolstoy, himself an awful husband,
Waits to make a midget of your memory.
You escaped from Elba
But not from St Helena.
Had you stayed in Corsica
None of this would have happened.
But you left, and now every nut ward in the world
Has one of you at least.
The Maudes were married more than fifty years.
In two days’ time, the Tour de France
Will go past here
Where I now sit to gather strength
For my retreat from this hot sun.
It’s time to go. High time to go. High time.
France, army, head of the army, Joséphine. 

Clive James is an Australian author, critic, broadcaster and poet, best known for his autobiographical series Unreliable Memoirs, his chat shows on British television and his prolific journalism. He has submitted several original poems for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double 2014

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Shami Chakrabarti’s fall from grace: how a liberal hero lost her reputation

Once, it was trendy to say you liked the former director of Liberty. No longer.

It might be hard to remember now, but there was a time when it was trendy to like Shami Chakrabarti. In the mid-2000s, amid the Iraq War backlash and the furore over identity cards, speaking well of the barrister and head of the human rights campaign group Liberty was a handy way of displaying liberal credentials. She was everywhere: Question Time, Desert Island Discs, Have I Got News For You. A young indie band from Worcester called the Dastards was so keen on her that it even wrote a song about her. It included the lyric: “I turn on my TV/The only one I want to see/Is Shami Chakrabarti.”

The daughter of Bengali immigrants, Chakrabarti was born and brought up in the outer-London borough of Harrow, where she attended a comprehensive school before studying law at the London School of Economics. Her background was a great strength of her campaigning, and during the most authoritarian years of New Labour government she burnished her reputation.

Fast-forward to 13 September 2016, when Chakrabarti made her House of Lords debut as a Labour peer. Baroness Chakrabarti of Kennington wore a sombre expression and a rope of pearls looped round her throat beneath her ermine robe. It was hard to recognise the civil liberties campaigner who was once called “an anarchist in a barrister’s wig” by Loaded magazine.

Yet Chakrabarti has also been cast in another role that is far less desirable than a seat in the Lords: that of a hypocrite. On 29 April this year, Jeremy Corbyn announced that Chakrabarti would chair an independent inquiry into anti-Semitism and other forms of racism in the Labour Party. The inquiry was prompted by the suspensions of Naz Shah, the MP for Bradford West, and Ken Livingstone, for making offensive remarks that were condemned as anti-Semitic. On 16 May Chakrabarti announced that she was joining Labour to gain members’ “trust and confidence”. She said that she would still run the inquiry “without fear or favour”.

The Chakrabarti inquiry delivered its findings on 30 June at a press conference in Westminster. The atmosphere was febrile – there were verbal clashes between the activists and journalists present, and the Jewish Labour MP Ruth Smeeth was reduced to tears. The report stated that Labour “is not overrun by anti-Semitism, Islamophobia or other forms of racism” but that there was an “occasionally toxic atmosphere”. It listed examples of “hateful language” and called on party members to “resist the use of Hitler, Nazi and Holocaust metaphors, distortions and comparisons”. Many Labour supporters were surprised that the report’s 20 recommendations did not include lifetime bans for members found to have shown anti-Semitic behaviour.

Then, on 4 August, it was revealed that Chakrabarti was the sole Labour appointment to the House of Lords in David Cameron’s resignation honours. Both Chakrabarti and Corbyn have denied that the peerage was discussed during the anti-Semitism inquiry. But critics suggested that her acceptance undermined the report and its independence.

In particular, it attracted criticism from members of the UK’s Jewish community. Marie van der Zyl, vice-president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, said: “This ‘whitewash for peerages’ is a scandal that surely raises serious questions about the integrity of Ms Chakrabarti, her inquiry and the Labour leadership.” A home affairs select committee report into anti-Semitism in the UK has since found that there were grave failings in the report for Labour.

Two further incidents contributed to the decline in Chakrabarti’s reputation: her arrival on Corbyn’s front bench as shadow attorney general and the revelation that her son attends the selective Dulwich College, which costs almost £19,000 a year in fees for day pupils (£39,000 for full boarders). She said that she “absolutely” supports Labour’s opposition to grammar schools but defended her choice to pay for selective education.

Chakrabarti told ITV’s Peston on Sunday: “I live in a nice big house and eat nice food, and my neighbours are homeless and go to food banks. Does that make me a hypocrite, or does it make me someone who is trying to do best, not just for my own family, but for other people’s families, too?”

This was the end for many of those who had respected Chakrabarti – the whisper of hypocrisy became a roar. As the Times columnist Carol Midgley wrote: “You can’t with a straight face champion equality while choosing privilege for yourself.”

Hypocrisy is a charge that has dogged the left for decades (both Diane Abbott and Harriet Harman have fallen foul of the selective school problem). The trouble with having principles, it is said, is that you have to live up to them. Unlike the right, the left prizes purity in its politicians, as Jeremy Corbyn’s squeaky-clean political image shows. Shami Chakrabarti started the year with a campaigning reputation to rival that of the Labour leader, but her poor decisions have all but destroyed her. It’s difficult to recall a time when a liberal icon has fallen so far, so fast. 

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood