The students boycotting Shakespeare

If you teach us, do we not learn?
Jewish students at Yesodey Hatorah school who boycotted an exam on the Merchant of Venice because they found it anti-Semitic, were backed by their head teacher, despite damaging their key stage 3 assessment results and demoting the school from 1st to 274th place in performance league tables. An ex-teacher of the school blogging on the Talkback message board for the online edition of Israeli newspaper Haaretz opposed Rabbi Pinter’s decision to support the students’ veto, advocating instead closer textual reading, but there were plenty more who supported the students.

The play David Jays once called a "nasty piece of work" here in the New Statesman was pronounced “one of the liveliest, toughest and most necessary conversations about art, prejudice and performance in Western culture” by Boyd Tonkin in the Independent. "What could be more pitiably prejudiced than to refuse to engage with it?" he asked, a view shared by Haaretz’s editor,
Simon Spungin.

Tonkin cited playwrights Harold Bloom and Arnold Wesker as examples of how Jewish engagement with the text could rescue the play from pound-of-flesh stereotyping.

‘Off’ to the Proms?

In the government’s quest to promote British values, Culture Minister Margaret Hodge declared the Proms an arcane cultural event with an exclusive audience that's "still a long way from demonstrating that people from different backgrounds feel at ease" in British cultural life. Although Gordon Brown was quick to clarify that the Proms are "a wonderful, democratic and quintessentially British institution", ex-Lambeth Councillor blogger
Gertsamtkunstwerk translated Hodge’s comments thus: "We can't begin to understand how you little people without our obvious advantages need anything more challenging than Coronation Street. Just crawl back to your hovels please." Over on the Guardian blog, South African-born David Juritz explained why Hodge was wrong for pronouncing the Proms an inclusive failure, and there were one or two sheepish souls grappling with an illiberal guilt for disliking so-called “alternative” cultural events: "I'm not comfortable at the Notting Hill Carnival. I went once and once it got dark I was really scared," StuartP conceded in a post. Telegraph blogger Rick, meanwhile, was quick to suggest a more temperate climate for "Comrade Hodge": "If La Hodge and her ilk do not like the Proms, Cuba still offers what they may have in mind, I'm sure expenses will cover their trip there."

The New Statesman had of course already probed the issue of cultural exclusivity last August, when Tory politician Brian Coleman railed about the sea of white faces that swathe the Promtime Albert Hall.

When life gets in the way…

- Died – Pavarotti - with debts of around £7 million (or £12 million, if the Daily Mail’s “official document” figure is to be believed). Properties worth considerably more than either sum may be sold to settle the debt providing daughters from the tenor’s first marriage cease inheritance-wrangling with second wife Nicoletta Mantovani.

- Revived - Bolshoi Ballet boss 81-year-old Soviet-era Yuri Grigorovich for a new 3-year directorship.

- Awakened - young people by pop music, and that’s sexually awakened by the way. A survey conducted by Jamaican researchers found that music rather than alcohol or peer pressure is the main instigator of sexual activity in young people aged between 9 and 17. A list of the top lust-inducing tunes has not yet been released.

Nichi Hodgson is a writer and broadcaster specialising in sexual politics, censorship, and  human rights. Her first book, Bound To You, published by Hodder & Stoughton, is out now. She tweets @NichiHodgson.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Jeremy Corbyn's Labour conference speech shows how he's grown

The leader's confident address will have impressed even his fiercest foes. 

It is not just Jeremy Corbyn’s mandate that has been improved by his re-election. The Labour leader’s conference speech was, by some distance, the best he has delivered. He spoke with far greater confidence, clarity and energy than previously. From its self-deprecating opening onwards ("Virgin Trains assure me there are 800 empty seats") we saw a leader improved in almost every respect. 

Even Corbyn’s firecest foes will have found less to take issue with than they may have anticipated. He avoided picking a fight on Trident (unlike last year), delivered his most forceful condemnation of anti-Semitism (“an evil”) and, with the exception of the Iraq war, avoided attacks on New Labour’s record. The video which preceded his arrival, and highlighted achievements from the Blair-Brown years, was another olive branch. But deselection, which Corbyn again refused to denounce, will remain a running sore (MPs alleged that Hillsborough campaigner Sheila Coleman, who introduced Corbyn, is seeking to deselect Louise Ellman and backed the rival TUSC last May).

Corbyn is frequently charged with lacking policies. But his lengthy address contained several new ones: the removal of the cap on council borrowing (allowing an extra 60,000 houses to be built), a ban on arms sales to abusive regimes and an arts pupil premium in every primary school.

On policy, Corbyn frequently resembles Ed Miliband in his more radical moments, unrestrained by Ed Balls and other shadow cabinet members. He promised £500bn of infrastructure investment (spread over a decade with £150bn from the private sector), “a real living wage”, the renationalisation of the railways, rent controls and a ban on zero-hours contracts.

Labour’s greatest divisions are not over policy but rules, strategy and culture. Corbyn’s opponents will charge him with doing far too little to appeal to the unconverted - Conservative voters most of all. But he spoke with greater conviction than before of preparing for a general election (acknowledging that Labour faced an arithmetical “mountain”) and successfully delivered the attack lines he has often shunned.

“Even Theresa May gets it, that people want change,” he said. “That’s why she stood on the steps of Downing Street and talked about the inequalities and burning injustices in today’s Britain. She promised a country: ‘that works not for a privileged few but for every one of us’. But even if she manages to talk the talk, she can’t walk the walk. This isn’t a new government, it’s David Cameron’s government repackaged with progressive slogans but with a new harsh right-wing edge, taking the country backwards and dithering before the historic challenges of Brexit.”

After a second landslide victory, Corbyn is, for now, unassailable. Many MPs, having voted no confidence in him, will never serve on the frontbench. But an increasing number, recognising Corbyn’s immovability, speak once again of seeking to “make it work”. For all the ructions of this summer, Corbyn’s speech will have helped to persuade them that they can.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.