In this week's New Statesman: Christmas issue, guest-edited by Richard Dawkins

In conversation with Christopher Hitchens | Carol Ann Duffy interview | Bill Gates | Philip Pullma

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In this 100-page special Christmas issue, the evolutionary biologist and bestselling author Richard Dawkins brings together some of the world's leading scientists, thinkers and writers. Dawkins has contributed an essay, "The tyranny of the discontinuous mind", written the New Statesman leader column -- an open letter addressed to the Prime Minister on faith schools -- and travelled to Texas to conduct an exclusive interview with the author and journalist Christopher Hitchens. They discuss religious fundamentalism, US politics, Tony Blair, abortion and Christmas.

Microsoft's Bill Gates has written a column on the wonders of innovation, the political theorist Alan Ryan has written on Barack Obama, and there are contributions from some of the world's most respected scientists, including Paul Nurse, president of the Royal Society, and the space explorer Carolyn Porco. Dawkins has also commissioned essays from the philosopher Daniel Dennett and the neuroscientist Sam Harris -- reuniting in the NS the "Four Horsemen" of New Atheism -- on human loyalty and free will, respectively.

Other contributors to the special issue include the human rights activist Maryam Namazie, the comedian Tim Minchin and the rabbi and broadcaster Jonathan Romain.

Elsewhere in the magazine, the Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, speaks to the NS assistant editor Sophie Elmhirst about choosing morals over politics, reading poems at Occupy St Paul's and her "Christmassy relationship" with God, Philip Pullman defends fairytales and Kate Atkinson offers an exclusive short story, "darktime".

All this, plus the annual NS Quiz and regular sections including Raphael Behr in the Politics column on the Eurosceptic vision, guest writer Douglas Alexander offers to work with the Lib Dems over Europe, Christmas reviews from Rachel Cooke, Andrew Billen and Will Self in the Critics, and a poem, "Madam", by the late New Statesman contributor, Christopher Logue.

Richard Dawkins says:

To guest-edit a great magazine with the status of a national treasure is the literary equivalent of being invited to imagine your ideal dinner party - Christmas dinner, in this case - and then of actually being allowed to send out real invitations to your dream companions. Every acceptance is like a present off the Christmas tree, gratefully unwrapped and treasured.

At the same time, I couldn't help being daunted by the New Statesman's historic reputation for serious, well-written radical commentary, and by the need in my literary Christmas dinner to temper merriment with gravitas.

We have no reindeer, but four horsemen; no single star of wonder and no astrologers bearing gifts, but a gifted star of astronomy who knows wonder when she sees it; no kings from the east, but the modern equivalent of a king from the west; and wise men - and women - all around the table. Please join us at the feast.

Richard Dawkins guest edit of New Statesman

To subscribe to the New Statesman or purchase this special issue, click here

Alice Gribbin is a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She was formerly the editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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Rarely has it mattered so little if Manchester United won; rarely has it been so special they did

Team's Europa League victory offers chance for sorely needed celebration of a city's spirit.

Carlo Ancelotti, the Bayern Munich manager, memorably once said that football is “the most important of the least important things”, but he was only partly right. While it is absolutely the case that a bunch of people chasing around a field is insignificant, a bunch of people chasing around a field is not really what football is about.

At a football match can you set aside the strictures that govern real life and freely scream, shout and cuddle strangers. Football tracks life with such unfailing omnipresence, garnishing the mundane with regular doses of drama and suspense; football is amazing, and even when it isn’t there’s always the possibility that it’s about to be.

Football bestows primal paroxysms of intense, transcendent ecstasy, shared both with people who mean everything and people who mean nothing. Football carves out time for people it's important to see and delivers people it becomes important to see. Football is a structure with folklore, mythology, language and symbols; being part of football is being part of something big, special, and eternal. Football is the best thing in the world when things go well, and still the best thing in the world when they don’t. There is nothing remotely like it. Nothing.

Football is about community and identity, friends and family; football is about expression and abandon, laughter and song; football is about love and pride. Football is about all the beauty in the world.

And the world is a beautiful place, even though it doesn’t always seem that way – now especially. But in the horror of terror we’ve seen amazing kindness, uplifting unity and awesome dignity which is the absolute point of everything.

In Stockholm last night, 50,000 or so people gathered for a football match, trying to find a way of celebrating all of these things. Around town before the game the atmosphere was not as boisterous as usual, but in the ground the old conviction gradually returned. The PA played Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds, an Ajax staple with lyrics not entirely appropriate: there is plenty about which to worry, and for some every little thing is never going to be alright.

But somehow the sentiment felt right and the Mancunian contingent joined in with gusto, following it up with “We’ll never die,” – a song of defiance born from the ashes of the Munich air disaster and generally aired at the end of games, often when defeat is imminent. Last night it was needed from the outset, though this time its final line – “we’ll keep the red flag flying high, coz Man United will never die" – was not about a football team but a city, a spirit, and a way of life. 

Over the course of the night, every burst of song and even the minute's silence chorused with that theme: “Manchester, Manchester, Manchester”; “Manchester la la la”; “Oh Manchester is wonderful”. Sparse and simple words, layered and complex meanings.

The match itself was a curious affair. Rarely has it mattered so little whether or not United won; rarely has it been so special that they did. Manchester United do not represent or appeal to everyone in Manchester but they epitomise a similar brilliance to Manchester, brilliance which they take to the world. Brilliance like youthfulness, toughness, swagger and zest; brilliance which has been to the fore these last three days, despite it all.

Last night they drew upon their most prosaic aspects, outfighting and outrunning a willing but callow opponent to win the only trophy to have eluded them. They did not make things better, but they did bring happiness and positivity at a time when happiness and positivity needed to be brought; football is not “the most important of the least important things,” it is the least important of the most important things.

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