”2011” just sounds peculiar

Some predictions for the fancifully titled calendar year ahead of us.

By the time you read this, it will probably be 2011. There's no doubt that, as we get older, the years are starting to sound more and more peculiar. The Eighties and Nineties were nice, manageable enough numbers. But once we were into 2000, it was hard to shake the feeling that we'd all stumbled into a sci-fi movie.

The whole decade from 2000-2010 was full of such lurid dates that we were too unnerved even to give it a name -- the "Noughties" was tried for a bit but it never caught on because it made ten years of our lives feel like an extended Carry On film. Now we're into another as-yet-nameless decade and 2011 is probably the most bizarre milestone so far. It sounds more like a rugby score than something you would be confident writing on a cheque.

There are two options in the face of an increasingly futuristic present: have a nervous breakdown or stare confidently down the barrel of what is to come. I've tried having nervous breakdowns before and they tend to be a rather short-term solution to your problem. So, instead, here are some predictions for the fancifully titled calendar year ahead of us.

Coalition exposed as hoax. Looking at it in the cold light of day, it all just seems a bit unlikely. The Conservatives teaming up with the Liberal Democrats, a party they have virtually nothing in common with? Nick Clegg, whom you couldn't have picked out of a line-up at the start of 2010, getting to be the second most powerful man in parliament? People routinely referring to "the coalition", as if we were in some Orwellian state where the idea of "the government" had been quietly phased out in favour of a smoother euphemism? I don't quite see it. The general election was ever so confusing. I think we'll learn some time in 2011 that, while we were all bamboozled by the mathematics of a hung parliament, somebody took the opportunity to launch the ultimate reality show, in which our reactions to the fake Tory-Liberal axis were secretly taped for Channel 4.

Andy Murray not to win Wimbledon. It's become a tediously predictable annual event to stack 50 years of our national frustrations about tennis on Murray's young shoulders and then mutter about what a grumpy bugger he is if he doesn't do the conga after winning a break point. Cool customer though he is, anyone would feel the pressure of expectation: Tim Henman certainly used to. So let's avoid the mistake we always made in more or less implying that Tiger Tim only had to turn up to win the tournament. I hereby predict that Andy Murray will definitely, definitely not win Wimbledon 2011, even if Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal break each other's legs in a freak locker-room collision. So, now that we've put that on record, (whisper) maybe he actually will win it. Clever stuff.

The Queen appears on Strictly Come Dancing. Unlikely? But did anyone forecast a year ago that a whole swath of the population would spend their autumn watching as Ann Widdecombe was dragged across a dance floor like a sack of laundry? The producers of Strictly have set themselves a pretty high bar. John Sergeant was an audacious choice and Widdecombe took the pantomime a stage further. Now, what elderly citizen can they drag out for next year's contest? Logic suggests they can only go right to the top. Aside from that royal wedding, which will be done and dusted by May, Her Royal Highness could certainly fit in the eight weeks' training to get the basics down and then the popular vote would surely keep her in for at least a few episodes.

Snow. Some time in early December, a completely unexpected series of snowfalls will lead to "arctic conditions". The nation's transport infrastructure will be paralysed, Christmas plans will be ruined and all the news channels will run more than three weeks of interrupted coverage of the crisis. The nation will rise up as one to ask why on earth we can't cope with the weather over here, when places like Canada are so good at it. This will continue for a couple of weeks. Then the sun will come out on 29 December and everyone will forget about it until the exact same point next year.

That is pretty much how I see the year shaping up. I went down to the bookies and they offered me fairly generous odds on an accumulator. I think it must have been the Queen-on-Strictly bit that tempted them.

Well, we'll soon see who is right. In the meantime, whatever plans you might be hatching to survive 2011, best of luck with them and have a Happy New Year.

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.

This article first appeared in the 03 January 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The siege of Gaza

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What I learnt when my wife and I went to Brexit: the Musical

This week in the media, from laughing as the world order crumbles to what Tristram Hunt got wrong – and Leicester’s big fall.

As my wife and I watched Brexit: the Musical, performed in a tiny theatre above a pub in London’s Little Venice, I thought of the American novelist Lionel Shriver’s comment on Donald Trump’s inauguration: “A sense of humour is going to get us through better than indignation.” It is an entertaining, engaging and amusing show, which makes the point that none of the main actors in the Brexit drama – whether supporters of Leave or Remain – achieved quite what they had intended. The biggest laugh went to the actor playing Boris Johnson (James Sanderson), the wannabe Tory leader who blew his chance. The mere appearance of an overweight man of dishevelled appearance with a mop of blond hair is enough to have the audience rolling in the aisles.

The lesson we should take from Brexit and from Trump’s election is that politicians of all shades, including those who claim to be non-political insurgents, have zero control of events, whether we are talking about immigration, economic growth or the Middle East. We need to tweak Yeats’s lines: the best may lack all conviction but the worst are full not so much of passionate intensity – who knows what Trump or Johnson really believe? – as bumbling incompetence. The sun will still rise in the morning (as
Barack Obama observed when Trump’s win became evident), and multi­national capital will still rule the world. Meanwhile, we may as well enjoy the show.

 

Danger of Donald

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t deny the risks of having incompetents in charge. The biggest concerns Trump’s geopolitical strategy, or rather his lack of one. Great power relations since 1945 have been based on mutual understanding of what each country wants to achieve, of its red lines and national ambitions. The scariest moments come when one leader miscalculates how another will react. Of all figures in recent history, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, with his flamboyant manner and erratic temperament, was probably the most similar to Trump. In 1962, he thought President Kennedy, inexperienced and idealistic, would tolerate Soviet missiles in Cuba. He was wrong and the world only narrowly avoided nuclear war.

How would Trump respond to a Russian invasion of the Baltic states? Will he recognise Taiwan as an independent country? Will he scrap Obama’s deal with Iran and support a pre-emptive strike against its nuclear ambitions? Nobody knows, probably not even Trump. He seems to think that keeping your options open and your adversaries guessing leads to “great deals”. That may work in business, in which the worst that can happen is that one of your companies goes bankrupt – an outcome of which Americans take a relaxed view. In international relations, the stakes are higher.

 

Right job, wrong time

I rather like Tristram Hunt, who started contributing to the New Statesman during my editorship. He may be the son of a life peer and a protégé of Peter Mandelson, but he is an all-too-rare example of a politician with a hinterland, having written a biography of Engels and a study of the English Civil War and presented successful TV documentaries. In a parallel universe, he could have made an inspirational Labour leader,
a more thoughtful and trustworthy version of Tony Blair.

No doubt, having resigned his Stoke-on-Trent Central seat, he will make a success of his new job as director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. If nothing else, he will learn a little about the arts of management and leadership. But isn’t this the wrong way round? Wouldn’t it be better if people first ran museums or other cultural and public institutions and then carried such experience into parliament and government?

 

Pointless palace

When the Palace of Westminster was largely destroyed by fire in 1834, thousands gathered to enjoy the spectacle. Thomas Carlyle noted that the crowd “whew’d and whistled when the breeze came as if to encourage it” and that “a man sorry I did not anywhere see”.

Now, with MPs reportedly refusing to move out to allow vital renovation work from 2023, we can expect a repeat performance. Given the unpopularity of politicians, public enthusiasm may be even greater than it was two centuries ago. Yet what is going through MPs’ minds is anyone’s guess. Since Theresa May refuses them a vote on Brexit, prefers the Foreign Office’s Lancaster House as the location to deliver her most important speech to date and intends to amend or replace Brussels-originated laws with ministerial orders under “Henry VIII powers”, perhaps they have concluded that there’s no longer much point to the place.

 

As good as it gets

What a difference a year makes. In January 2016, supporters of Leicester City, my home-town team, were beginning to contemplate the unthinkable: that they could win football’s Premier League. Now, five places off the bottom, they contemplate the equally unthinkable idea of relegation.

With the exception of one player, N’Golo Kanté (now at Chelsea), the team is identical to last season’s. So how can this be? The sophisticated, mathematical answer is “regression to the mean”. In a league where money, wages and performance are usually linked rigidly, a team that does much better than you’d predict one season is likely to do much worse the next. I’d suggest something else, though. For those who won last season’s title against such overwhelming odds, life can never be as good again. Anything short of winning the Champions League (in which Leicester have so far flourished) would seem an anti­climax. In the same way, the England cricket team that won the Ashes in 2005 – after the Australians had dominated for 16 years – fell apart almost as soon as its Trafalgar Square parade was over. Beating other international teams wouldn’t have delivered the same adrenalin surge.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era