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In this week’s New Statesman | Christmas and New Year special

A first look at this week’s magazine.

19 December 2014

Christmas Double Issue

Politics column: George Eaton on a year which neither Labour nor the Tories “won”

Jemima Khan meets her comedy hero, John Cleese

Alan Johnson’s Diary: Christmas casuals at the Royal Mail and understanding Gordon Brown

Robert Webb on Peep Show and why women should be allowed to be idiots, too

Editor’s Note: Jason Cowley on the enduring rivalry of the Miliband brothers

Mehdi Hasan: a modern day Mary and Joseph would get stuck at an Israeli checkpoint

Xan Rice The family that thought they had lost their children in the tsunami – but were they wrong?

Tidings of good sneer: Kate Mossman meets Johnny Rotten

Reverend Richard Coles: Advent is not a cosy mulled-wine and candlelight refuge

Rowan Williams on why we need fairy tales now more than ever

*Plus an exclusive short story by Ali Smith and Advent poem by Carol Ann Duffy*

 

The Politics Column: George Eaton

Reflecting on 2014, the NS political editor, George Eaton, argues that politics is no longer a zero-sum game played by the Conservatives and Labour because “insurgent tribes” have “invaded the pitch”. For the first time, he writes, the two main political parties are coming to terms with the idea that they could both lose:

In the summer, Ukip triumphed in the European elections, becoming the first party outside of the big two to win a national contest since 1906. The SNP came within 10 points of achieving Scottish independence in September – a far narrower margin than most in Westminster originally forecast – and prompted panic on the unionist side. Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless swapped Tory blue for Ukip purple and won by-elections in Clacton and Rochester under their new banner. Although the Farageists failed to capture a defector from Labour, they came within just 617 votes of defeating the party in Heywood and Middleton. That by-election was the most visible indicator of how Ukip had burrowed into Labour’s working-class core. By fusing the issues of the EU and immigration, Nigel Farage succeeded in remorselessly expanding his party’s appeal beyond its initial base.

The ascent of Ukip on the right was mirrored by that of the Greens on the left. By framing themselves as the only anti-austerity party, they rose as high as 8 per cent in the polls and tussled with the Liberal Democrats for fourth place. Alive to the dangers of a divided left, Labour (as the New Statesman reported in October) established an electoral unit led by the shadow justice secretary, Sadiq Khan, to combat the threat.

The net result of this voter promiscuity was that the two biggest parties ended the year with less support than they started it. Some polls put their combined share at just 59 per cent – the lowest level on record. Rather than a battle of the strong, British politics became a war of the weak.

 

The NS interview: A starstruck Jemima Khan meets John Cleese

At 75, after many years of personal struggle, John Cleese says he is the happiest he has ever been. The comic talks to the NS Associate Editor, Jemima Khan, about marriage, alimony, Hacked Off and the Daily Mail (“that miserable paper”), growing up fearful of his “omniphobic” mother, and enjoying life with his fourth wife, Jennifer Wade:

Reviewers have accused him of being a curmudgeon and although I enjoyed his book, it’s fair to say he does not come across in it as a man perennially brimming with bonhomie.

So, it’s a pleasant surprise when he strides into the room positively beaming. Despite being “extraordinarily tired, hilariously tired” (this is his third interview of the morning even though it’s not quite 10am), he kisses me hello, greets me by name and is both solicitous and forthcoming. He rarely agrees to print interviews, he tells me, because “they ask you questions and you think, “Now why did they ask that? What’s the agenda? And that makes the whole thing a sort of watchful process.” His remark instantly makes me reassess my questions. What is my agenda?

Khan asks a younger generation of comedians and actors what makes Cleese, her comedy hero, so funny. The actor Hugh Grant tells her: “I love and revere Cheese, and have done all my life . . . I want to be his fifth bride.” David Baddiel observes that Cleese is “a brilliant physical comedian [ . . . ] amazingly good at making his tall body funny in a large, swinging way. But he’s also very good at small, telling eye movements, particularly those that indicate that the high status man – his natural habitat – is aware, in a very subtle way, that he has been undermined.”

Khan concludes that tenacity and perfectionism have been both the secret to Cleese’s success and the cause of some of his personal difficulties:

One of his fellow Pythons, he tells me, had more aptitude than he did for script writing but lacked the discipline and therefore the success. “If it got to 4.55pm in the old days and he wanted to finish a sketch, he would just go for the formulaic solution and have a nice glass of wine in his hand at 5.15. And I would be sitting there at 6.50 because I wasn’t satisfied with what I was coming up with and Connie [Booth] would be saying, ‘We’ve got to leave in ten minutes’ and I’d say, ‘Yes, yes, yes.’ That’s what it’s about, it’s so much about time and just sitting there until you get the good ideas.” “A degree of obsession,” he reflects in his book, “often produces the best work but does not produce the best life.” A Fish Called Wanda took 13 drafts.

This seems to me to be the essence of Cleese: he’s an inveterate tryer. The multiple marriages seem more about his obsessive determination to get things right than any irrepressible enthusiasm for the institution itself.

Age and happiness have mellowed the comedian, however, and he wants to enjoy his twilight years “writing humorously and possibly performing something on television” rather than working on another film:

These days, he is less of a perfectionist, he says. “I’m not so sure as I used to be that I’m right . . . You realise after a time your judgment is often wrong.”

Cleese says he now feels “out of touch with the audience”. He is not a fan of any modern comedians except Will Ferrell. “I don’t watch much modern stuff . . . I don’t think this is a particularly golden age creatively. There was a classier kind of comedy that I grew up on and what they’re doing now is aimed, by and large, at young American males who have no general knowledge at all; it’s the problem my daughter has in her stand-up that she has to make jokes about drugs, sex, eating disorders, celebrities, sport, TV shows. . .”

For this reason and the fact that it takes so long to make a film, he has no intention of writing another one. “I don’t want, at 75, to spend nearly three years when I should probably be dead before the end of it. I think I’ve got a few years left but there’s more interesting things to do.”

 

Diary: Alan Johnson

Recalling busy Christmas days at the Royal Mail, the former Home Secretary Alan Johnson has a dig at the current Business Secretary:

Christmas was always a special time when I was a postman. Our ranks were swelled by a huge influx of Christmas casuals as we battled to process the tidal wave of mail that washed up in our sorting office. I’ve lost count of the number of people eager to tell me that they, too, were once postal workers but who, upon further inquiry, turned out to have been a casual during their student days.

Perhaps Vince Cable was a casual. Used as an adverb rather than a noun, it certainly describes the way he sold off a great public service. And his dismissal of the concerns expressed by Royal Mail’s chief executive, Moya Greene, about the threat to its universal service obligation was casual to be sure. He accused her of “scaremongering” for pointing out that the company will not be able to deliver mail to every address, no matter how remote, six days a week, for a single price if unregulated competition continues to cherry-pick its most lucrative customers. Royal Mail should never have been broken up and privatised. Vince Cable, as the architect of that policy, needs at least to ensure that the universal service doesn’t follow Mail Rail into extinction.

In the wake of Gordon Brown’s announcement that he is leaving parliament, Johnson remembers glimpsing something of the former prime minister’s soul north of the border:

My fondest memory of Gordon doesn’t relate to my time as his health and home secretaries. It goes back ten years to when I was first appointed to cabinet at the Department for Work and Pensions. As we approached Christmas, Gordon invited me up to address his local constituency party. The meeting was in the evening and I spent the afternoon visiting various towns in Fife while Gordon was travelling up from London. It was in Cupar and Anstruther and Cowdenbeath that I caught a glimpse of Gordon’s psyche.

These communities, built around industries as diverse as fishing, coal mining and the manufacture of linoleum, were fiercely political, with a probity and passion for history that were truly remarkable. They were immensely proud of Gordon and it made me realise how this landscape between the Firth of Tay and the Firth of Forth had shaped his spirit and entered his soul.

 

Robert Webb: We need to let women be idiots, too

The comedian Robert Webb takes aim against the casual misogyny of the recently-axed ITV2 show Dapper Laughs:

Dapper Laughs is gone but his fans are legion and genuinely don’t appear to see what the problem is. Worse, like some of their sweet brethren in the online gaming community for whom a rape threat is a kind of mild rebuke and like the guys in university societies who make up misogynist chants to sing, there’s a pathetic air of persecution. They talk as if threatening women with violence were some kind of free-speech issue. The crowning absurdity is the sorry-assed inadequates of men’s rights activism who point out how the prisons are disproportionately occupied by men and that rates of suicide are disproportionately high among men and decide to blame – wait for it – “feminists”.

The solution, Webb argues, is to have more funny female characters on TV, not the strong-but-humourless ones programme makers are fond of:

You hear TV producers sometimes talking about the importance of having “strong female characters”. This is balls, particularly in comedy. The female characters in Peep Show are not “strong”: they are idiots. As idiotic as the men. In Men Behaving Badly, a show I enjoyed, Debs and Dorothy were strong, all right, but did they get to be funny? Their function was mainly to walk into a room and go: “Tonyyyyy! Garyyyy! Stop being funnyyyy!”.

In Peep Show, there have been Toni (brittle narcissist), Nancy (manipulative American hippie), Big Suze (oblivious posh sadist), Carla (oversexed thief), Merry (certified lunatic), Dobby (awkward, Cheddar-loving über-geek), Elena (bisexual Ukrainian liar), Zahra (pseudo-intellectual bore), Penny (randy jam-making lost cause), Liz (vindictive Christian) and Cally (BlackBerry-obsessed control freak), to name a few. Characters are not people. They can only have one or two things about them and that goes for Mark and Jeremy, too. But to allow the women to be as flawed as the men is to allow them to be equally funny. And, while we’re at it, equally human.

 

Editor’s note: Jason Cowley

The NS editor Jason Cowley was never convinced by the idea that David Miliband’s exile from politics would be permanent and now, it seems, a return may not be far off:

The older Miliband was profoundly hurt by his defeat. When I worked with him on a guest-edited issue of the New Statesman in 2012, I was struck by just how much he had changed from the man with whom I had travelled to India in January 2009 on an official trip when he was foreign secretary. Defeat had humbled him but it had also made him wiser and more interesting. In an interview with the Financial Times on 13 December, he said: “Tony Blair and John Major have said that they wish they’d done their post-premiership jobs before they became prime minister.”

What was he getting at? He was understandably reluctant to talk about his brother but, asked if he envisaged returning to British politics, he said: “You just don’t know, do you?” During Ed Miliband’s recent leadership crisis I spoke to several senior Labour figures who still referred to David as if they expected him to return one day. What they could not answer was by what means or when.

 

Lines of Dissent: Mehdi Hasan

In his Christmas issue column, Mehdi Hasan reflects that if Mary and Joseph tried to reach Bethlehem today, they would get stuck at an Israeli checkpoint:

‘Tis the season of Nativity scenes. But here’s a question to consider: would Joseph and Mary even have been able to reach Bethlehem if they were making that same journey today?

How would that carpenter and his pregnant wife have circumnavigated the Kafka­esque network of Israeli settlements, roadblocks and closed military zones in the occupied West Bank? Would Mary have had to experience labour or childbirth at a checkpoint, as one in ten pregnant Palestinian women did between 2000 and 2007 (resulting in the death of at least 35 newborn babies, according to the Lancet)?

“If Jesus were to come this year, Bethlehem would be closed,” declared Father Ibrahim Shomali, a Catholic priest of the city’s Beit Jala parish, in December 2011. “Mary and Joseph would have needed Israeli permission – or to have been tourists.”

 

Notebook: Richard Coles on the challenges and anxiety of Advent

Richard Coles, the pop star turned Church of England vicar, observes that “retail frenzy” is no less a part of Advent than “mulled-wine and candlelight” because this is a time of “anxiety and challenge” in the Christian calendar:

Out and about lately people have been stopping me and talking about those those awful scenes of consumer frenzy on Black Friday and bewailing the lack of Christmas spirit – sad face – and appealing to me for some kind of ecclesiastical endorsement of their seasonal rectitude. But I don’t want to give it. For a start, it’s not Christmas, it’s Advent, in which anxiety and challenge are principal themes; and second, because Christ was born into a world of human reality, of strife, and competition, and acquisitiveness, and the meanness of spirit with which we look down on those whose behaviour we deplore without much effort to understand it, a fact very often overlooked in a secular world which fancies my world offers a cosy mulled-wine and candlelight refuge from the harsh realities the braver and wiser endure.

It is a season of peculiar shifts of mood and tone. Carol Services start earlier and earlier – this year I hearkened to the herald angels and looked out on the Feast of Stephen before World Aids Day (December 1st) – and I expect by the time we get to Midnight Mass the evergreen appeal of carols may have wilted a little. But that’s just the soundtrack. Far more challenging is the sheer arbitrariness of human misadventure, rising and falling without any regard for the calendar or the occasion. Since I have been ordained I have never had a Christmas without a bereavement, the onset of winter a time when the incidences of death rise, as nights draw in and the temperature drops and Christmas adverts and round twelve of Strictly finally persuade the dying that perhaps they’ve had enough. I have gone from a church Christingle service, still chewing a jelly tot, to a death bed; from children holding candles in anticipation of the birth of Christ, to a husband holding the hand of his wife in anticipation of her imminent death. This is just how it is.

 

The Critics Interview: Johnny Rotten

The NS pop critic Kate Mossman talks to Johnny Rotten about Ed Miliband, Ukip and the truth about the punk movement. She finds the former Sex Pistol as angry as ever:

His is a strange and solipsistic vision – a narrow corridor of thought in which he is right and everyone else is wrong – and as such it is one of the most entertaining accounts of the well-worn punk story: Malcolm McLaren is a phoney, Joe Strummer “out to grab himself a crown”, Sid Vicious is a loser junkie with “lifestyle issues”.

Rotten reserves a special brand of vitriol for Vivienne Westwood:

“Vivienne Westwood at the moment is portraying this nonsense that she conceived the idea of anarchy in the UK. Well, then why didn’t she write the song? I mean, what an audacity! Malcolm spoke this way too – pursuing their every waking thought as an artistic statement. That is completely, always, the voice of the talentless.”

Earlier this year, Westwood told the New Statesman that she saw punk primarily as a “marketing opportunity”. I let him know.

“Well, that contradicts the idea of ‘anarchy’ in the UK rather nicely then, doesn’t it!” he flashes. “She never spoke to me. Never liked me, never wanted anything to do with me, hated me on sight. Now she’s trying to move in on my territory. Nobody ever put words in my mouth, not ever. Now that Malcolm’s gone – rest in pieces! – she’s moved in on the territory he was trying to cover. I think it’s very cheap and nasty.”

On Miliband, Rotten notes:

“I’ve met the fella [ . . . ] and he seems honest enough. He dresses like a Tory, he talks like a Tory, so I’m confused. But there’s a softer edge to Labour than there is to any of the others and therefore that is the right way. There really isn’t an alternative. You can’t be handing it back to the landed gentry because they don’t give a fuck about any of us and they never will. They think it’s their moral obligation to be wealthy.”

 

Xan Rice’s Letter from Indonesia: miraculous reunion or mistaken identity?

Xan Rice travels to Meulaboh to meet Septi Rangkuti and his wife Jamaliah who lost their son and daughter Arif and Raudha in the Tsunami that swept Indonesia on Boxing Day, 2004. After years without their children, assuming they were dead, Septi received a call in June this year from Jamaliah’s half-brother with extraordinary news:

 “Septi,” he said. “I have a found a girl who looks like Raudha.”

Zainuddin, who is 59, with short hair and a long moustache, was still living in Blangpidie, the coastal town near Meulaboh. On the night of 24 June this year, he had a disturbing dream. “A girl came to me, calling me Papa, and sat on my lap,” he would later recall. “As she sat there, one of her hairs slowly fell from her head to the ground.” When he woke up he worried that something had happened to one of his daughters, but they were fine.

Three days later he walked to the main road to buy mobile phone credit and stopped at a coffee stall. Three schoolgirls walked down the road. It was the last day of the school year, and they were clutching their reports. One of them, a girl named Weni, came over to say hello to the stall owner. Zainuddin had never seen the girl before and asked the propri she was. “She is a tsunami orphan from the Banyak Islands,” the proprietor, referring the cluster of 99 small islands in the Indian Ocean, about 250 kilometres from Meulaboh.

According to Zainuddin, something extraordinary then happened. “One of the girl’s hairs fell down from her hijab, just like in my dream,” he said. “My heart started beating fast.”

 

Plus

 

Burhan al-Chalabi argues that air strikes will only strengthen Islamic State’s popularity

CIA Report: Gavin Rees on the lessons the US should have learned from the French in Algeria

John Berger enjoys the egalitarian anonymity of public swimming pools

Helen Lewis: spare a thought for the women refugees at Yarl’s Wood over Christmas

Tom Watson MP on his year in video games
Erica Wagner on what Breaking Bad taught us about capitalism

Author Helen Macdonald makes a winter swan pilgrimage to the Ouse Washes

Peter Wilby on the female front-runners for the Guardian editorship and Russell Brand’s outing on Question Time

Will Self visits Nicholas Lezard’s “Hovel” for a freelancer’s Christmas party

Caroline Crampton on what an exhibition of the Louvre’s Egyptian treasures in Lille says about French cultural politics

Ed Smith argues black tie isn’t about elegance; it’s a pretext for drunkenness

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett on the comforting realisation that nobody’s Christmas lives up to the adverts

*Plus our pick of the best political cartoons of 2014*

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120 years on, and rugby league is still patronised as “parochial”

Even as Leeds and Hull Kingston Rovers do battle in the 2015 Challenge Cup final, the century-old conflict between rugby league and rugby union isn’t over.

When Leeds and Hull Kingston Rovers step out onto the hallowed Wembley turf on Saturday afternoon it will be a celebration, regardless of the result. The final of rugby league’s oldest competition is expected to be watched by over 85,000 fans, with countless more watching on the BBC. And the reason for celebration? This year’s Challenge Cup final falls on rugby league’s 120th birthday. 

Saturday will mark exactly 120 years to the day that the custodians of 22 clubs rendez-voused at the George Hotel in Huddersfield to split from the amateur Rugby Football Union (RFU). The teams who formed the guerrilla organisation were dependent on millworkers, miners and dockers who unlike their more affluent and privately-educated southern counterparts, could ill-afford to miss work to play rugby. As such, the Northern Football Union (which later changed its name to the Rugby Football League) announced its separation from the RFU and immediately accepted the principal of receiving payment for playing. Taking the schism as a declaration of war, the RFU struck back by issuing lifetime bans to any player associated with its northern kin. 

Neither league’s revolutionary spirit nor the promise of a pay cheque lead to a change in fortunes, though. It remains, according to one journalist, a “prisoner of geography”, ensnared by its older kin. Wembley is its parole, the chains are off, for but a short while, as league earns a pass out of its Northern confinement. Union, on the other hand, is the dominant code in terms of finances, participation numbers and global reach, while league is still viewed as a “parochial” sport. 

To understand why league is viewed as parochial, and union global, the writings of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci on cultural hegemony are particularly useful. Union embodies the resource-rich and powerful historic bloc, institutionalised through its strong standing within public-schools and its big-business connections. League, on the other hand represents the downtrodden and plucky subaltern. Its agency has only stretched so far as to command superior TV figures perhaps a ringing endorsement from the masses.

In order to quell its fellow oval-chasing brethren there are examples of union shockingly suppressing the spread of league. In France the 13-a-side code had overthrown union’s dominance as hundreds of clubs switched to le treize towards the end of the 1930s. As the Second World War divided France, union bigwigs held office with members of the Nazi-collaborating Vichy government who were persuaded to outlaw rugby league once and for all. 

On 19 December 1941 a decree forced league clubs to hand over kit, stadia and funds to their union counterparts. The game has never fully recovered in France, although two Frenchman are in contention to play for Rovers on Saturday – Kevin Larroyer and John Boudebza, testament to the art of treizistance.

There are other instances of union dignitaries stifling league’s growth in places as wide-ranging as Japan, Serbia, South Africa and Italy. Examples exist in the United Kingdom too. Cambridge student Ady Spencer was banned by the RFU from playing in the Varsity Rugby Union match having enjoyed the rigours of league as a youngster in his native Warrington. The incident was subject to a parliamentary motion in 1995 being condemned as an “injustice and interference with human rights”.

But even as rugby union followed its heretic sibling into professionalism a century after the split there’s little to suggest the relationship has changed, highlighted this year through the case of Sol Mokdad. A Lebanese national, Mokdad will be watching the final in Beirut with friends, but it’s a far cry from where he was just a few months ago – locked up in a jail cell in Dubai at the behest of UAE Rugby Union (UAERU). 

“I moved to the UAE in 2006 and set up rugby league there a year later. I was arrested for fraud and for setting up a competition without the UAERU’s permission,” he tells me. “I was baffled as they’re a completely different body. It’s like the Cricket Federation demanding that they control all baseball matches. We’d just got a huge deal with Nissan to sponsor our competition which the UAERU weren’t happy about. They said I’d impersonated their president in order to get the money which was a complete lie. They weren’t too happy that we were getting a lot of exposure in western media outlets too, because I’d suggested that the UAE would be a good place to host the World Cup, that’s where it all started to go wrong.”

“I was at a corporate event when I got a phone call to say that UAERU had ordered my arrest. I tried ringing my mate George Yiasemides who was the COO of UAE Rugby League. He’d promised to help me out, but he didn’t want anything to do with me. He sold me down the river. I was chucked into a cockroach-infested cell. The bathrooms were covered in s**t  and I was locked up for 14 days with no contact with the outside world.” 

Eventually an agreement was reached and all Mokdad had to do was sign a document which would guarantee his release, subject to conditions. Easy enough right? But as he explains it wasn’t. 

“They sent me to the wrong police station and when I eventually got hold of the document they’d added conditions I hadn’t agreed too. I had to make a public apology on all of our social media, destroy all documentation and was told that I was financially liable for any damages or legal fees that may come up in the future. Any monies gained from our sponsorship was to be handed over to the UAERU, as well as having to agree to never participate in any rugby activity in the UAE again.”

Homeless, broke and jobless, Mokdad returned to his native Lebanon and he is unsure of where his future lies. “I definitely want to stay in the sport however I can. It was incredibly hard to leave what I’d created in Dubai.” he says. “I still think about it now. It was so surreal.” 

He’s backing Leeds in the final, in case you were wondering. Although it all makes Saturday’s game seem rather irrelevant if in 2015 you can be jailed for establishing a sport. Perhaps it shows more than ever, that after 120 years of separation, rugby league is still trying to shake off the shackles of its older brother.