Shakespeare's Globe

If this were an Oscar Wilde story, our future would be foretold in Robert Peston’s follicles

The story continues to generate an absurd amount of coverage. Why? Because for many this is the only intelligible story. Forget about AIG, ICICI, CDOs and the rest of the alphabet soup of financial acronyms. Peston promises hope of recovery, or perhaps an elixir of youth. If this were an Oscar Wilde story our future would be foretold in his follicles. The first flash of grey at his temple would mark the bottom of the market - the "buy" signal we have all been waiting for. But it's not a novel. We live in a world so banal it's news when Pizza Hut changes its name to Pasta Hut. Perhaps it should call itself Peston Hut in tribute to his eternally youthful topping.

Last week I met Nobel laureate Sir Vidia Naipaul at a Literary Review lunch. He is one of the few authors I’ve encountered who exudes supreme self-confidence. He echoed the provocative claim by the Nobel judge Horace Engdahl that American literature is parochial, and proudly revealed that he had reviewed Philip Roth’s first novel 50 years ago. The review was so negative it was never published. I asked whom he thought worthy of this year’s prize, but he demurred, instead asking me for my nominations. Each name I suggested elicited a withering response. Mario Vargas Llosa? Too sensationalist. What about British writers? “Like whom?” he frowned. I scratched my head. J G Ballard? John le Carré? Snorts of derision. Who did he want to win? “I think it’s time for a Syrian poet,” he said.

Alas, the Syrian poet who goes by the singular Adonis was pipped to the post by Jean-Marie Le Clézio from France. One of Adonis’s best-known works is “The Funeral of New York”, published in 1971: “New York is a woman/ holding, according to history,/a rag called liberty with one hand/and strangling the earth with the other.” Well, there is always next year.

Sir Vidia also told me he never reads books when he is writing because he doesn’t like to contaminate his prose. If only I could apply the same principle to this column and give up reading other people’s. In my trade newspapers are unavoidable. Today even the feel-good news feels bad. For one week in November passengers arriving at Terminal Five will apparently receive a free cup of tea and a biscuit. This supposedly joyous innovation is to encourage people to entertain positive thoughts about Britain rather than worries about bad weather and financial woes.

I couldn't think of a crueller trick to play on foreign visitors. How long will the tea stew in its urn? What's more, tea is a diuretic. No sooner will he have left Heathrow than even the most continent of continental travellers would feel the call of nature. Unfortunately, the number of public conveniences has been slashed, halving in a decade to 5,500, according to the British Toilet Association. A uroscopy flask would seem a more appropriate gift.

Cometh the hour, cometh the Mandelson. “It’s back to 1994,” said Derek Draper when I saw him at the Evening Standard’s London Influentials party. I hope not. Or at least I hope Draper’s old boss has developed a thicker skin since being gazetted as Lord Mandelson of Foy and Hartlepool. Whenever I went up to Mandy at Labour party conferences he would brush me off with the words, “I don’t speak to diarists.” Seconds later, he would be whispering sweet somethings into a rival journalist’s ear. Yes, I admit it, I was jealous. I don’t think Peter ever forgave me for once accusing him of making a shopping trip, with an unidentified male companion, to buy kitchen utensils at Jerry’s Home Store on the Fulham Road. It was hardly the most damaging item; perhaps he baulked at an implied image of connubial bliss. He insisted it was a case of mistaken identity and demanded (and received) a retraction. It is hard to believe he would do the same today. Unless, perhaps, I accused him of dyeing his hair. Perish the thought.

Can computers think? My wife, author of the forthcoming The Art of Conversation, has just participated in the Turing Test at Reading University. She had a three-way, five-minute conversation via computer and had to discern which correspondent was human and which was a machine. “Do you know Hal?” she asked, referring to the masterful computer in Kubrick’s 2001: a Space Odyssey. Surely the boffins who had devised the software would have prepared for that. The first reply? “I try to leave the baking up to my girlfriend.” Sorry?

The question I wanted her to ask was “What is the secret of longevity?”. A British woman of 105 has attributed hers to plenty of walking, the odd glass of wine and no sex. Luckily, for me, the answer was football and TV.

Sebastian Shakespeare is editor of the Evening Standard’s Londoner’s Diary

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2008 issue of the New Statesman, My year with Obama

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times