The Virgin Mary takes a much-deserved gong. Photo: Getty
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Bad theatre, BoJo and Bingate: Mark Lawson’s culture awards 2014

Handing out the gongs.

The Cultural Controversy Prize
(sponsored by Twitter)

A strong case was made for the forcing off air of a radio broadcaster by the overreaction of witless BBC management. But the story of David Lowe – expelled from Radio Devon after accidentally playing a 1932 record that included the N-word – eventually shared third place with Jeremy Clarkson, who mumbled the same taboo. Runner-up was “Bingate”, which involved days of speculation about whether one contestant on The Great British Bake Off had deliberately defrosted the baked Alaska of another. But whereas many heads of great cultural institutions have lost their marbles without knowing it, Neil MacGregor of the British Museum knew what he was doing when, while continuing to deny the Greek claim to the Elgins, he lent one to Vladimir Putin.

Send Them Back Prize
(sponsored by Ukip)

Calls for a UK trade embargo of American Equity were prompted by three appalling theatrical imports to London. Bakersfield Mist by Stephen Sachs wasted the talent of Kathleen Turner in an execrable squib about the attribution of Jackson Pollocks that forced critics to stoop for a low rhyme with the artist’s surname. Theresa Rebeck’s Seminar had lessons in creative writing as both its subject and its urgent requirement. And, in a revival of David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow, Richard Schiff (Toby from The West Wing) played a supposedly demonic Hollywood producer on such a low-voiced single note that his co-star Lindsay Lohan could act him off the stage just by turning up, which, despite bitchy predictions of unreliability, she did.

No Publicity Required Award
(presented by Thomas Pynchon)

Although methods of publicity and advertising became ever more sophisticated, two of the biggest British events of 2014 would still have succeeded if their marketing had consisted of a single scribbled Post-it note stuck to a tree. This prize goes to Monty Python – the first release of tickets for the “One Down, Five to Go” reunion selling out in 43.5 seconds – with Kate Bush getting the silver for taking 15 minutes to shift every seat for her 22-night comeback.

Disguised Leadership Bid Prize
(presented by Rt Hon Theresa May)

In a pre-election period, “campaign autobiographies” are commonplace. But this year was notable for political authors who spent their entire publicity tour denying that they were making a bid for power. Voted into joint third place were Alan Johnson – forced to deny that his second memoir, Please, Mister Postman, was attempting to deliver a farewell letter to Ed Miliband – and Hillary Clinton, whose Hard Choices infuriatingly but ingeniously spent 635 pages failing to rule in or rule out another White House run. Second was Russell Brand with Revolution, a curious attempt to incite an uprising with no coherent aims. But, for sheer chutzpah, the panel acclaimed Boris Johnson, whose The Churchill Factor explored the public appeal of burly, controversial hedonists with a lucrative sideline in writing.

Unlikely Dramatic Appearances Award
(sponsored by Godot)

For remaining a go-to protagonist after more than 2,000 years, the panel found it inconceivable to look beyond the Virgin Mary. She was portrayed on stage by Fiona Shaw in The Testament of Mary and, in his one-man play The Man Jesus, by Simon Callow, who also impersonated Mary Magdalene – a character (mixed up with at least three other biblical Marys) in John Adams’s oratorio The Gospel According to the Other Mary at ENO.

The Prize for Popularising Art
(presented by that man who won the Turner)

Strong competition came from J M W Turner himself – who had a revelatory show of late work at Tate Britain and was played by Timothy Spall in a Mike Leigh movie – and the critic John Ruskin, a character in both Leigh’s film and Emma Thompson’s Effie Gray. Runner-up was Grayson Perry, for guest-editing a leading left-wing magazine and creating in his tremendous Channel 4 series Who Are You? a portrait pot of Chris Huhne that featured a line of penises. But the year’s most visible artist, an impressive feat as he was confined under house arrest in China, was Ai Weiwei, who created thrilling interventions within the buildings and landscape of Yorkshire Sculpture Park and Blenheim Palace.

The Hidden Portrait Award
(presented by Wally from Where’s Wally?)

A crowded fictional genre was literary satire, with the lit sat sometimes also containing a lit spat. Hanif Kureishi’s The Last Word, Edward St Aubyn’s Lost for Words, Robert Galbraith’s The Silkworm, David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks and Mal Peet’s The Murdstone Trilogy all contained scurrilous portraits of writers who felt oddly familiar. But only transatlantic yacht crews have sailed closer to the wind than Kureishi, whose fictional authorial monster, Mamoon Azam, shared with Sir V S Naipaul physical appearance, anti-post-colonial attitudes, sneers at his peers, a goatee beard and a Nobel Prize in literature. The judges gave extra marks for reports that Naipaul had attended the book launch.

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Issue 2014

Drew Angerer/Getty Images
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Donald Trump wants to terminate the Environmental Protection Agency - can he?

"Epa, Epa, Eeeepaaaaa" – Grampa Simpson.

 

There have been countless jokes about US President Donald Trump’s aversion to academic work, with many comparing him to an infant. The Daily Show created a browser extension aptly named “Make Trump Tweets Eight Again” that converts the font of Potus’ tweets to crayon scrawlings. Indeed, it is absurd that – even without the childish font – one particular bill that was introduced within the first month of Trump taking office looked just as puerile. Proposed by Matt Gaetz, a Republican who had been in Congress for barely a month, “H.R. 861” was only one sentence long:

“The Environmental Protection Agency shall terminate on December 31, 2018”.

If this seems like a stunt, that is because Gaetz is unlikely to actually achieve his stated aim. Drafting such a short bill without any co-sponsors – and leaving it to a novice Congressman to present – is hardly the best strategy to ensure a bill will pass. 

Still, Republicans' distrust for environmental protections is well-known - long-running cartoon show The Simpsons even did a send up of the Epa where the agency had its own private army. So what else makes H.R. 861 implausible?

Well, the 10-word-long statement neglects to address the fact that many federal environmental laws assume the existence of or defer to the Epa. In the event that the Epa was abolished, all of these laws – from the 1946 Atomic Energy Act to the 2016 Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act – would need to be amended. Preferably, a way of doing this would be included in the bill itself.

Additionally, for the bill to be accepted in the Senate there would have to be eight Democratic senators who agreed with its premise. This is an awkward demand when not even all Republicans back Trump. The man Trum appointed to the helm of the Epa, Scott Pruitt, is particularly divisive because of his long opposition to the agency. Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine said that she was hostile to the appointment of a man who was “so manifestly opposed to the mission of the agency” that he had sued the Epa 14 times. Polls from 2016 and 2017 suggests that most Americans would be also be opposed to the agency’s termination.

But if Trump is incapable of entirely eliminating the Epa, he has other ways of rendering it futile. In January, Potus banned the Epa and National Park Services from “providing updates on social media or to reporters”, and this Friday, Trump plans to “switch off” the government’s largest citizen-linked data site – the Epa’s Open Data Web Service. This is vital not just for storing and displaying information on climate change, but also as an accessible way of civilians viewing details of local environmental changes – such as chemical spills. Given the administration’s recent announcement of his intention to repeal existing safeguards, such as those to stabilise the climate and protect the environment, defunding this public data tool is possibly an attempt to decrease awareness of Trump’s forthcoming actions.

There was also a recent update to the webpage of the Epa's Office of Science and Technology, which saw all references to “science-based” work removed, in favour of an emphasis on “national economically and technologically achievable standards”. 

Trump’s reshuffle of the Epa's priorities puts the onus on economic activity at the expense of public health and environmental safety. Pruitt, who is also eager to #MakeAmericaGreatAgain, spoke in an interview of his desire to “exit” the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. He was led to this conclusion because of his belief that the agreement means “contracting our economy to serve and really satisfy Europe, and China, and India”.

 

Rather than outright closure of the Epa, its influence and funding are being leached away. H.R. 861 might be a subtle version of one of Potus’ Twitter taunts – empty and outrageous – but it is by no means the only way to drastically alter the Epa’s landscape. With Pruitt as Epa Administrator, the organisation may become a caricature of itself – as in The Simpsons Movie. Let us hope that the #resistance movements started by “Rogue” Epa and National Parks social media accounts are able to stave off the vultures until there is “Hope” once more.

 

Anjuli R. K. Shere is a 2016/17 Wellcome Scholar and science intern at the New Statesman

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