The myth of lazy Brits, brand NHS and the rainbow cricket team

Peter Wilby's First Thoughts column.

When I was a child, I was taught that the British were particularly energetic because of our bracingly cold climate. In contrast, the soporific heat of the Mediterranean caused Spaniards and Greeks to spend all day ingesting white wine and olives, while the lushness of Africa allowed the natives to wait for ripe fruit to drop from the trees.

Even Tory MPs don’t think that now and, instead, they echo Orwell, who described the English as “actually the laziest people in Europe”. Five Tories say we are “among the worst idlers in the world” and prefer “a lie-in to hard work”. They demand “graft, risk and effort”, qualities they doubtless demonstrated in their pre-parliamentary careers in, respectively, accountancy, business law, PR, financial analysis and advising Michael Gove.

Orwell adduced no evidence for his claims (the man was a journalist, for heaven’s sake, why would he?) and nor do the MPs. “We work among the lowest hours, we retire early and our productivity is poor,” they state. If we compare ourselves to Singapore, which seems to be the Tories’ template, I suppose that may be correct. But within Europe, our full-time employees work longer weekly hours than anybody except Austrians and (much good it has done them) Greeks. Our labour force as a whole (including part-timers) works an hour less than the EU average but the average Briton still toils 42 minutes a week more than the Germans and nearly six hours more than the Dutch. We retire, on average, a year later than other Europeans and three years later than the French. Compared to our northern neighbours, we lag on productivity – surely the result of inadequate company investment rather than workers’ sloth – but still above the EU average.

I advise the MPs to curtail their lie-ins and apply more graft to their homework when writing future studies of British failings.

No bananas


I have no information on Ecuadorean productivity but I know Ecuador ranks above the Tories’ favourite, Singapore, on political rights and civil liberties. My source is Freedom House, which gets most of its money from the US government and may therefore be assumed not overly sympathetic to what the Daily Mail’s Melanie Phillips calls “a tyrannical banana republic” that is “puffing out its braided and bemedalled chest” in support of Julian Assange.

Does Ecuador deserve quite so much abuse? Its president, Rafael Correa, is an economist and I doubt he has ever worn medals or braid. He is certainly not a model democrat or civil libertarian, having recently acquired powers to control judges and journalists, which, I fancy, our own ministers would take, given half a chance. At least he put them to a referendum that observers found free from significant fraud. True, he used public resources to persuade people to vote the right way. But the enormous deployment of corporate resources to influence US elections reminds us that, when it comes to democracy, nobody’s perfect.

Wealth service

Funny how the Tories, who normally tell us the NHS is an inefficient, rickety old thing in urgent need of a makeover, now say its “brand” is so admired around the world that it should set up profit-making branches overseas. I guess they’re just desperate for money but somebody should tell them that the NHS is admired precisely because it isn’t a “brand”, like Virgin or Pepsi. It is (or was) a public service, focused on making people healthier. Once it loses that focus and falls into the hands of PRs, image consultants and marketing specialists, it changes. Encourage the NHS to look for profit-making opportunities and there will be no end to it. NHS leisure centres, “energy drinks” and cosmetics, anybody?

Where the Sun doesn’t shine


In this digital age, we need more details about the BBC and the Guardian. A Freedom of In - formation request reveals, to the predictable fury of the right-wing press, that, over an 11- month period, the corporation bought 58,829 Guardians (177 a day) against only 42,905 (129 a day) copies of the Sun. But what of online access? How disgraceful and un-British if BBC executives are clicking on Guardian investigations of tax avoidance instead of keeping abreast (as it were) of celebrity adultery and the assets of page-three lovelies.

Rainbow nation

Much as one mourns an England defeat, South Africa’s ascent to the top of the world Test cricket rankings is cause for celebration. Of the winning team (leaving aside an itinerant Pakistani), all but one were born between 1980 and 1985. They are truly Mandela’s children, with few significant memories of the apartheid era. Four are non-white South Africans, with blacks, Asians and “coloureds” (people of mixed race) all represented. In the final Test, one nonwhite made the only century (after a triple century earlier in the series); another took five England second-innings wickets. When such players started their careers, it was widely alleged that they benefited from a quota system and hadn’t earned their places on merit.

South African cricket isn’t perfect: whites are still greatly over-represented. But it is the only multiracial team in international cricket, a sharp contrast to England and Australia, which, apart from one appearance by a Pakistan-born batsman for the latter, contested the latest Ashes series with all-white teams.

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 27 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the political cartoon?

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide