Sliced from the curriculum

Armed with three complaints (two about knife crime, one about a goldfish being flushed down the toilet) Britain’s biggest exam board has removed a poem by Carol Ann Duffy from its GCSE English syllabus. The loudest complaints came from one Pat Schofield, an exam invigilator who described the poem, "Education for Leisure", as "horrendous". The poem details feelings of internalised rage and inadequacy as a man signs on to the dole. It begins: "Today I am going to kill something. Anything./I have had enough of being ignored and today/I am going to play God."

"What sort of message is that to give to kids who are reading it as part of their GCSE syllabus?" asked Mrs Schofield. While Childen's Laureate Michael Rosen leapt to her defence and called the poem a gateway to discussion over knife crime, Duffy responded in verse.

Entitled "Mrs Schofield’s GCSE", the poem reminds the reader that knives have been used elsewhere in literature, namechecking Othello, Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet. Schofield, when asked about this follow-up said she felt "a bit gobsmacked" to have been made the subject of a poem, describing the work as "a bit weird". She added: "But having read her other poems I found they were all a little bit weird."

Given that AQA require their students to "read, with insight and engagement, making appropriate references to texts and developing and sustaining interpretations of them", perhaps AQA should have considered removing Ms Schofield rather than the poem.

Currying favour

Meanwhile, the predictable Booker uproar. Salman Rushdie didn’t make the Booker shortlist with The Enchantress of Florence, to the astonishment of many.

The Times took it especially badly. "He is the winner of the Booker, the Booker of Bookers and the Best of Booker, but reputation counted for nothing when Sir Salman Rushdie was left off the shortlist for the 2008 Man Booker Prize yesterday", the paper huffed. A quick check of the archives, however, would have revealed that Peter Kemp reviewed Rushdie’s novel for its sister paper, the Sunday Times, earlier this year and described it as "by a long chalk, the worst thing he has ever written".

Still. Kemp is in a rather better position than NS contributor John Sutherland, who promised to curry and eat his copy of the book if Rushdie didn’t win. Sutherland now says he won't follow through on his promise, to the outrage of literary website Complete Review. "Since the review came out", the website states, "we have been eagerly anticipating the Man Booker announcements, waiting for the moment when the book was out of the running - and Sutherland would, as promised, curry that proof and consume it ... Rarely have we been so disappointed by a literary critic. Here is an opportunity to stand by one's words, and with practically no explanation, he refuses to do so."

Ever helpful, the Complete Review has offered curry recipes to help Sutherland on his way. "Sir Salman might even be able to help with the preparation," it goes on to suggest. "He must have a few favourite family-recipes which can be tweaked to include a bit of paper and print."

Dance dance dance to the radio

Missing out on the Mercury music prize yet again, Radiohead can console themselves with being featured alongside Bach and Tchaikovsky in the Scottish Ballet’s repertoire. The band are providing a number of tracks for "Ride the Beast", a component of Scottish Ballet’s new touring production.

Having previously worked with Rufus Wainwright and Lou Reed, choreographer Stephen Petronio enthused about his choice: "Their music demands a physical response from me that bypasses reason. I have to live with music so intimately while creating with it, I simply have to work with music I love."

The work, which premiered at last year’s Edinburgh Festival, was well received though it may be the only time critics are able to use the words "sexy", "energetic" and "upbeat" in the same sentence as Radiohead.

The Beat Goes On

Few film genres are as maligned as the biopic, especially as recent efforts have appeared to follow a cynical formula: take one interesting life and condense it into 120 schmaltzy minutes. This autumn, however, Hollywood film-makers have turned their attention to somewhat grittier subjects.

Howl will recount the life of the beat poet Allen Ginsberg, with emphasis on the obscenity trial which billowed around the eponymous poetry collection. Pretty boy James Franco is to take the lead while the rest of the cast are much less questionable with Mary-Louise Parker, Alan Alda and David Strathairn.

Hunter S Thompson is also being immortalised on celluloid in Gonzo. It's something of a departure for director Alex Gibney, who won this year's documentary Oscar for his analysis of the use of torture by US forces in Afghanistan, Taxi to the Dark Side. Narration is provided by Thompson's friend (and the man who paid for Thompson's ashes to be fired from a cannon, as per his wishes) Johnny Depp.

Fittingly, a film about Richard Nixon is also in the works. The former US president was famously a target of Thompson's invective, notably in this obituary for Rolling Stone. "If the right people had been in charge of Nixon's funeral, his casket would have been launched into one of those open-sewage canals that empty into the ocean just south of Los Angeles", Thompson wrote. "He was a swine of a man and a jabbering dupe of a president."

It's the second time Nixon has hit the big screen, after Oliver Stone's biopic in 1995. Stone has set his sights on another President, George W Bush. "W" is due out in America just in time for the election. Is Stone making a political intervention, or simply looking to boost ticket sales? That remains to be seen.

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The Autumn Statement proved it – we need a real alternative to austerity, now

Theresa May’s Tories have missed their chance to rescue the British economy.

After six wasted years of failed Conservative austerity measures, Philip Hammond had the opportunity last month in the Autumn Statement to change course and put in place the economic policies that would deliver greater prosperity, and make sure it was fairly shared.

Instead, he chose to continue with cuts to public services and in-work benefits while failing to deliver the scale of investment needed to secure future prosperity. The sense of betrayal is palpable.

The headline figures are grim. An analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows that real wages will not recover their 2008 levels even after 2020. The Tories are overseeing a lost decade in earnings that is, in the words Paul Johnson, the director of the IFS, “dreadful” and unprecedented in modern British history.

Meanwhile, the Treasury’s own analysis shows the cuts falling hardest on the poorest 30 per cent of the population. The Office for Budget Responsibility has reported that it expects a £122bn worsening in the public finances over the next five years. Of this, less than half – £59bn – is due to the Tories’ shambolic handling of Brexit. Most of the rest is thanks to their mishandling of the domestic economy.


Time to invest

The Tories may think that those people who are “just about managing” are an electoral demographic, but for Labour they are our friends, neighbours and the people we represent. People in all walks of life needed something better from this government, but the Autumn Statement was a betrayal of the hopes that they tried to raise beforehand.

Because the Tories cut when they should have invested, we now have a fundamentally weak economy that is unprepared for the challenges of Brexit. Low investment has meant that instead of installing new machinery, or building the new infrastructure that would support productive high-wage jobs, we have an economy that is more and more dependent on low-productivity, low-paid work. Every hour worked in the US, Germany or France produces on average a third more than an hour of work here.

Labour has different priorities. We will deliver the necessary investment in infrastructure and research funding, and back it up with an industrial strategy that can sustain well-paid, secure jobs in the industries of the future such as renewables. We will fight for Britain’s continued tariff-free access to the single market. We will reverse the tax giveaways to the mega-rich and the giant companies, instead using the money to make sure the NHS and our education system are properly funded. In 2020 we will introduce a real living wage, expected to be £10 an hour, to make sure every job pays a wage you can actually live on. And we will rebuild and transform our economy so no one and no community is left behind.


May’s missing alternative

This week, the Bank of England governor, Mark Carney, gave an important speech in which he hit the proverbial nail on the head. He was completely right to point out that societies need to redistribute the gains from trade and technology, and to educate and empower their citizens. We are going through a lost decade of earnings growth, as Carney highlights, and the crisis of productivity will not be solved without major government investment, backed up by an industrial strategy that can deliver growth.

Labour in government is committed to tackling the challenges of rising inequality, low wage growth, and driving up Britain’s productivity growth. But it is becoming clearer each day since Theresa May became Prime Minister that she, like her predecessor, has no credible solutions to the challenges our economy faces.


Crisis in Italy

The Italian people have decisively rejected the changes to their constitution proposed by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, with nearly 60 per cent voting No. The Italian economy has not grown for close to two decades. A succession of governments has attempted to introduce free-market policies, including slashing pensions and undermining rights at work, but these have had little impact.

Renzi wanted extra powers to push through more free-market reforms, but he has now resigned after encountering opposition from across the Italian political spectrum. The absence of growth has left Italian banks with €360bn of loans that are not being repaid. Usually, these debts would be written off, but Italian banks lack the reserves to be able to absorb the losses. They need outside assistance to survive.


Bail in or bail out

The oldest bank in the world, Monte dei Paschi di Siena, needs €5bn before the end of the year if it is to avoid collapse. Renzi had arranged a financing deal but this is now under threat. Under new EU rules, governments are not allowed to bail out banks, like in the 2008 crisis. This is intended to protect taxpayers. Instead, bank investors are supposed to take a loss through a “bail-in”.

Unusually, however, Italian bank investors are not only big financial institutions such as insurance companies, but ordinary households. One-third of all Italian bank bonds are held by households, so a bail-in would hit them hard. And should Italy’s banks fail, the danger is that investors will pull money out of banks across Europe, causing further failures. British banks have been reducing their investments in Italy, but concerned UK regulators have asked recently for details of their exposure.

John McDonnell is the shadow chancellor

John McDonnell is Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington and has been shadow chancellor since September 2015. 

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump