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The Diary — John McCarthy

The former Beirut hostage on the pleasures of fishing, memories of revolution in Paris . . . and say

Merlangius merlangus, in the family Gadidae. It sounds pretty romantic to me – an ancient warrior poet, perhaps? No, just a humble little whiting, a small member of the cod clan. But it’s the first fish I’ve ever caught and my friend Mick and I are delighted. Especially as this little creature comes in on the last cast after we’ve stood on Aldeburgh beach for a couple of hours in sometimes horizontal rain.

Though the catch is too small to keep, the outing has been a lot of fun. Our wives and daughters were flying kites before sensibly retiring to a café for warming drinks. Watching rod and line, Mick, a sapper, talks of tours of duty in Afghanistan and serving in Bosnia as a young man. He speaks of wanting to do something worthwhile but also about the excitement of working in dangerous places, building bridges and assisting refugees. As he speaks the waves hit the beach and push through the shingle. Their low roar and shushing reflects the steady pulse of the sea’s power but is also calming. Just as we are all loading tackle into the cars, a Spitfire flies low over the sea just a few hundred yards away. Because of the weather, there is no one else around, so it feels as though we’re being treated to a private air show.

Danton’s inferno

The skies are clear as I walk through the empty streets of Woodbridge to catch the early train. At St Pancras I meet up with the Radio 4 producer Harry Parker and take the Eurostar to Paris. We’re making two features for the new-look Saturday Live, which is to take over the slot we have been occupying for many years now with Excess Baggage, the travel programme.

We head to Boulevard Saint-Germain to rendezvous with the writer Jan Kelley, author of Path of the Patriots, a guide to revolutionary Paris. There’s a fine statue of Danton, flanked by two ardent and musketed supporters, on the site of the revolutionary leader’s home. The figures stand on a plinth about 20 feet above us, which, according to Jan, is just about where his first-floor salon would have been had we come visiting in 1794, just before he fell foul of his fellow revolutionaries.

I studied the French Revolution for A-level and, talking with Jan, the cobwebs start falling away. When she says, “And this is where Marat lived,” I respond, parrot-fashion: “He was stabbed to death in his bath!” But now I can feel the atmosphere of the narrow medieval streets, long since swept away to be replaced by Baron Haussmann’s boulevards. The two revolutionaries lived just 30 yards from each other. Apparently Danton would stop by and impatiently rattle his keys on the iron banisters to hurry the disorganised Marat out of his apartment above. I half close my eyes and the noise of bus and motorbike becomes the clatter of horses’ hooves and the tumbrel’s wheels. These historical characters, who changed the world, come alive for me as I imagine them walking together, plotting.


It seeks us here, it seeks us there and the rain seeks us everywhere. So it’s a relief to spend much of the day sheltered from the elements in the Metro as we use the Paris underground to explore parts of the city often bypassed on the tourist trail. The sun makes a dramatic appearance as the train pulls out of the Gare du Nord and we race across the flatlands of Picardy. The evening sunshine charges fields of yellow rape and green wheat with an electric vibrancy against the blackening, rain-clouded sky.

A real Eiffel

Home in Suffolk after midnight, but happily woken early this morning by my daughter Lydia (aged 6½), who carefully balances an inquiry about possible souvenirs from France with delight at seeing her dad. A ballpoint pen that bears a picture of the Eiffel Tower and plays the Marseillaise, wins me another hug. Most of the day is eaten up with endless emails, making plans but not doing anything really. A more productive hour is spent with my friend Tim Curtis shooting a sequence for his film to raise funds for restoration work on Woodbridge’s very beautiful St Mary’s Church.

The lives of others

On the rails again, this time to Oxford and Waterstones for a talk on my book You Can’t Hide the Sun, which explores the history and landscape of the Palestinian citizens of Israel. The event goes well; people seem hungry to understand the Israel-Palestine conflict better and are interested and surprised to learn about this group of people, who make up one in five of Israel’s population.

At every talk I’ve given on the book, a couple of people have come up afterwards to explain that they are Jewish and fiercely pro-Israel but also highly concerned about the state’s treatment of Palestinian people within and without the country. Hearing about, reading about the lives of ordinary people, caught up in extraordinary and complicated political situations, makes it much harder to write off rival peoples as the “other”, undeserving bogeymen.

Listening to stories recounted on the streets where the events happened lends them a deeper humanity, I feel – whether the location is Acre in 1948 or Paris in 1789.

Brother Brian

A day of interviews for Irish radio stations to promote the book. Again there’s a lot of interest in the subject – and some inevitable questions about the years spent banged up in Beirut with my Irish “brother” Brian Keenan.

Chic, charm and peril

It is the end of an era as we put out the final edition of Excess Baggage. We’ve been touched by many kind words from our audience, who are sad to see the programme go. I’ve worked on it for over five years, cutting my teeth as a live presenter.

Sad though I am at the programme’s demise, I will still be making travel features for Radio 4. The trip with Harry Parker to Paris was the first outing. In the near future we’ll be venturing to Beirut, with its intense mix of chic, charm and potential peril. And we’ll be heading to Canvey Island, with its intense mix of . . .

John McCarthy is a writer, journalist and broadcaster

John McCarthy is a writer, journalist and broadcaster.

This article first appeared in the 07 May 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The Science Issue

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The Tories' aim is to put Labour out of business for good

Rather than merely winning again, the Conservatives are seeking to inflict permanent damage on the opposition. 

The Conservatives are numerically weak but politically strong – that is the peculiarity of their position. Their majority is the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974. Yet, to MPs at the Tory conference in Manchester, it felt like “2001 in reverse”: the year of Tony Blair’s second election victory. Then, as now, the opposition responded to defeat by selecting a leader, Iain Duncan Smith, who was immediately derided as unelectable. Just as Labour knew then that it would win in 2005, so the Conservatives believe that they have been gifted victory in 2020. David Cameron has predicted that the party’s vote share could rise from 37 per cent to a Thatcherite 43 per cent.

For Cameron and George Osborne, who entered parliament in 2001, this moment is revenge for New Labour’s electoral hegemony. They believe that by applying Blair’s lessons better than his internal successors, they can emulate his achievements. The former Labour prime minister once spoke of his party as “the political wing of the British people”. In Manchester, Cameron and Osborne displayed similarly imperial ambitions. They regard Jeremy Corbyn’s election as a chance to realign the political landscape permanently.

Seen from one perspective, the Tories underperformed on 7 May. They consistently led by roughly 20 points on the defining issues of the economy and leadership but defeated Labour by just 6.5 overall. It was their enduring reputation as the party of the plutocracy that produced this disparity. Those who voted for Labour in spite of their doubts about Ed Miliband and the party’s economic competence may not be similarly forgiving of Corbyn. To maximise their gains, however, the Tories need to minimise their weaknesses, rather than merely exploit Labour’s.

This process began at conference. At a dinner organised by the modernising group the Good Right, Duncan Smith, Michael Gove and the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, affirmed their belief that, contrary to Thatcherite orthodoxy, inequality is a problem. Only the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, an admirer of the libertarian heroine Ayn Rand, insisted that equality of opportunity was the defining metric.

George Osborne’s assured speech was most notable for his sustained appeal to Labour voters. Several opposition MPs told me how unsettled they were by the Chancellor’s declaration that Labour’s new leadership calls “anyone who believes in strong national defence, a market economy and the country living within its means” a Tory. He added, “It’s our job to make sure they’re absolutely right. Because we’re now the party of work, the only true party of labour.” The shadow minister Jonathan Reynolds told me: “We’ve got to be extremely clear that this is not business as usual. This is a real attempt by the Tories to put us out of business – possibly for ever.”

The Conservatives’ aim is to contaminate Labour to the point where, even if Jeremy Corbyn were deposed, the toxin would endure. For those opposition MPs who emphasise being a government-in-waiting, rather than a protest movement, the contrast between the high politics of the Tory conference and Corbyn’s rally appearance in Manchester was painfully sharp. They fear guilt by association with the demonstrators who spat at and abused journalists and Tory delegates. The declaration by a rally speaker, Terry Pullinger, the deputy general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, that Corbyn’s election “almost makes you want to celebrate the fact that Labour lost” was regarded as confirmation that some on the left merely desire to run the party, not the country.

But few Tory MPs I spoke to greeted Corbyn’s victory with simple jubilation. “It’s a great shame, what’s happened to Labour,” one said. “We need a credible opposition.” In the absence of this, some fear the Conservatives’ self-destructive tendencies will reassert themselves. The forthcoming EU referendum and leadership contest are rich in cannibalistic potential. Tories spoke forebodingly of the inevitable schism between European Inners and Outers. As the Scottish experience demonstrated, referendums are almost never definitive. In the event of a close result, the party’s anti-EU wing will swiftly identify grounds for a second vote.

Several cabinet ministers, however, spoke of their confidence in Cameron’s ability to navigate the rapids of the referendum and his pre-announced departure. “More than ever, he’s the right man for these times,” one told me. By this December, Cameron will have led his party for ten years, a reign exceeded in recent history only by Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. That the Conservatives have so far avoided cataclysm is an underappreciated achievement.

Yet there are landmines ahead. An increasing number of MPs fear that the planned cuts to tax credits could be a foul-up comparable to Gordon Brown’s abolition of the 10p tax rate. Despite the appeals of Boris Johnson and the Sun, Cameron and Osborne have signalled that there will be no backtracking. At such moments of reflection, the Tories console themselves with the belief that, although voters may use Corbyn as a receptacle for protest (as they did Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband), they will not elect him. They also acknowledge that the current Labour leader may not be their opponent in 2020. The former paratrooper Dan Jarvis is most often cited as the successor they fear. As with Cameron and Blair, his relative lack of ideological definition may prove to be a strength, one MP suggested.

William Hague is fond of joking that the Tories have only two modes: panic and complacency. If the danger before the general election was of the former, the danger now is of the latter. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.