Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.


Battle of Ideas, Barbican, EC2, 20-21 October

The Battle of Ideas is a weekend of lectures, panel discussions and “conversations” on a wide range of subjects touching on morality, politics, art, science, gender and popular culture (to name a few). Claire Fox, director at the Institute of Ideas, states that the festival’s raison d’être is “to make virtues of free-thinking and dissent” and that its slogan is “FREE SPEECH ALLOWED”, urging attendees to hold their nerve, as no doubt “sensibilities will be offended”. The weekend kicks off first thing on Saturday morning with the question “What’s wrong with equality?” ending at 7:30pm the following evening with a panel discussing “No future: has pop lost its radical edge?” The line-up is too diverse to cover here and the speakers billed make for something of a battalion of potential In Our Time contributors, but you if you’re interested, click here for a full timetable of events.


Grizzly Bear, Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Sunday 21

Jazz-camp graduates Grizzly Bear bring their egalitarian experimental pop music to the beautiful Butterworth Hall at Warwick Arts Centre this weekend, in celebration of their superb new album Shields. The former Mercury-nominated Brooklyn outfit have produced a fourth album Pitchfork refer to as their “most compositionally adventurous record”, a collection of “unvarnished shipwreck spirituals” that form an “excavation of loneliness, melancholy, and self-reliance”. The rest of the week is just as aurally adventurous, featuring the best in pop experimentation with Field Music, Efterkland (Danish rock trio performing with the Sage’s Northern Sinfonia) and singer-songwriter Joan Armatrading.


The Thick of It Inquiry, BBC2/HD, 9:45pm

Mr Tickell is dead. All are culpable and Lord Leve-, I mean Goolding, wants answers. The opposition, everyone at DoSAC and the civil service are to be grilled one at a time during this one-hour special, the penultimate episode in the fourth series of The Thick of It. The listings report “Lord Goolding is reputedly a fair man, but he is not going to stand for any nonsense and neither is his team of expert inquisitors, so surely now the truth will come out. Unless someone lies, or creates a diversion of some kind, or simply pretends not to remember anything. Which they obviously would never do.”


Everyday Encounters, William Morris Gallery, E17, 13 October – 3 February

This exhibition in Walthamstow’s newly refurbished William Morris Gallery pivots on Morris’s oft-quoted proclamation: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful”. Members of the Society of Designer Craftsmen have been invited to create and display new work in response to Morris’s rallying call, exploring the possibilities for materials, decoration, narrative and the role of craft in contemporary life. The majority of the work is available for sale and entry to the exhibition is free.


Beasts of the Southern Wild, cinemas nationwide, out today

Already this film has received an indecent amount of hype. Winner of the Camera d’Or at Cannes, the film has picked up awards and accolades like dead flies on a windshield, all of which will be splattered across billboards nationwide this weekend. It is the first film from director Behn Zeitlin, an adaptation of a one-act play calling upon the devastation of low-lying Louisiana to tell the story of Hushpuppy (played by Quevenzhané Wallis, only six years old when the film was shot) and her father Wink, who find their position increasingly desolate as the waters rise and Wink’s health begins to fail. “The Bathtub”, the bayou in which they live, is apocalyptic and mystical, and home to aurochs: boar-like ancestors unfrozen and released on the wilds by rising global temperatures. Tim Robey at the Telegraph produced this nifty little paragraph about the film’s protagonist: “Hush puppy is no holy innocent but a fizzy little sprite with a face like a clenched fist, facing everything that comes her way – principally the Katrina-like storm that threatens to obliterate her world – with the pugnacious instincts of a born survivor. She gets a voice-over, which applied the deliberately inarticulate lyricism of Terrence Malick to the Toni Morrison-like mantras recurring inside her head, whipping up fresh poetry from this cocktail of influences.”

Beasts of the Southern Wild's Quevenzhané Wallis at Cannes. Photo: Getty Images.
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In defence of expertise: it’s time to take the heart out of “passionate” politics

What we need is cool logic.

We are living through a bonfire of the experts. During the EU referendum campaign, Michael Gove explained that people had had enough of them. A few weeks later, his fellow Tory MPs took him at his word and chose a relative ingénue to run against Theresa May.

After declaring for Andrea Leadsom in the Tory leadership race, Michael Howard was asked whether it might be a problem that she had never held a position higher than junior minister. Howard, whose long career includes stints as home secretary and opposition leader, demurred: “I don’t think experience is hugely important.”

Even in this jaw-dropping season, that comment caused significant mandibular dislocation. I thought: the next Tory leader will become prime minister at a time of national crisis, faced with some of the UK’s most complex problems since the Second World War. If experience doesn’t matter now, it never does. What does that imply about the job?

Leadsom’s supporters contended that her 25 years in the City were just as valuable as years spent at Westminster. Let’s leave aside the disputed question of whether Leadsom was ever a senior decision-maker (rather than a glorified marketing manager) and ask if success in one field makes it more likely that a person will succeed in another.

Consider Ben Carson, who, despite never having held elected office, contested the Republican presidential nomination. He declared that Obamacare was the worst thing to happen to the United States since slavery and that Hitler may have been stopped if the German public had been armed. Yet Carson is not stupid. He is an admired neurosurgeon who pioneered a method of separating conjoined twins.

Carson is a lesson in the first rule of expertise: it does not transfer from one field to another. This is why, outside their domain, the most brilliant people can be complete dolts. Nevertheless, we – and they – often assume otherwise. People are all too ready to believe that successful generals or entrepreneurs will be good at governing, even though, more often than not, they turn out to be painfully inept.

The psychologist Ellen Langer had her subjects play a betting game. Cards were drawn at random and the players had to bet on whose card was higher. Each played against a well-dressed, self-assured “dapper” and a shabby, awkward “schnook”. The participants knew that it was a game of chance but they took more risks against the schnook. High confidence in one area (“I’m more socially adept than the schnook”) irrationally spilled over into another (“I’ll draw better cards”).

The experiment points us to another reason why we make poor judgements about competence. We place too much faith in social cues – in what we can see. As voters, we assume that because someone is good at giving a speech or taking part in a debate, they will be good at governing. But public performance is an unreliable indicator of how they would cope with running meetings, reading policy briefs and taking decisions in private. Call it the Boris principle.

This overrating of the visible extends beyond politics. Decades of evidence show that the job interview is a poor predictor of how someone will do in the job. Organisations make better decisions when they rely on objective data such as qualifications, track record and test scores. Interviewers are often swayed by qualities that can be performed.

MPs on the Commons education select committee rejected Amanda Spielman, the government’s choice for the next head of Ofsted, after her appearance before them. The committee didn’t reject her because she was deficient in accomplishments or her grasp of education policy, but because she lacked “passion”. Her answers to the committee were thoughtful and evidence-based. Yet a Labour MP told her she wasn’t sufficiently “evangelical” about school improvement; a Tory asked her to stop using the word “data” so often. Apparently, there is little point in being an expert if you cannot emote.

England’s football team is perennially berated in the media for not being passionate enough. But what it lacks is technique. Shortly before Wales played England in the European Championship, the Welsh striker Gareth Bale suggested that England’s players lacked passion. He knew exactly what he was doing. In the tunnel before kick-off, TV cameras caught the English goalkeeper Joe Hart in a vessel-busting frenzy. On the pitch, Hart allowed Bale to score from an absurdly long range because he was incapable of thinking straight.

I wish there were less passion in politics and more cool logic; less evangelism and more data. Unthinking passion has brought the Labour Party to its knees and threatens to do the same to the country. I find myself hungering for dry analyses and thirsting for bloodless lucidity. I admire, more than ever, those with obscure technical knowledge and the hard-won skills needed to make progress, rather than merely promise it.

Political leadership is not brain surgery but it is a rich and deep domain. An effective political leader needs to be an expert in policy, diplomacy, legislative process and how not to screw up an interview. That is why it’s so hard to do the job well when you have spent most of your time in boardrooms or at anti-war rallies.

If democratic politicians display contempt for expertise, including their own, they can hardly complain if those they aspire to govern decide to do without the lot of them. 

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt