I have never been much smitten reading the electoral views of music stars or business sages. The little vignettes are largely guff – and not to be confused with the insights of celebrities who use their experience to make us understand something better: Marcus Rashford on childhood food poverty or Raheem Sterling on racism in football, among others.
But every now and then a grade-A celeb nails politics. Before the US election, Bruce Springsteen popped up on Channel 4 News, and said of President Trump:
He’s such a flagrant, toxic narcissist that he wants to take down the entire democratic system with him if he goes. He simply has no sense of decency or responsibility. The words he uses have been an attack on the entire democratic process. He will make as big a mess as he can.
Give Springsteen an honorary knighthood for services to punditry (there are other reasons if you need them).
The Booker Prize ceremony that took place before Christmas (I am chair of the Booker Prize Foundation – the charity that oversees the prizes) included a pre-recorded message about reading, fiction and the Booker from Barack Obama. We knew that he had enjoyed reading several previous winners, such as Bernardine Evaristo who co-won the prize in 2019, and that he had read Yann Martel’s Life of Pi aloud to his children in the White House.
I have suggested to the executive team and my fellow trustees that in the interests of impartiality we should take the plunge and offer President Trump a chance to contribute to next year’s Booker ceremony. I will write him an invitation. But as Spring-steen said – Trump is not a reflective person, so I think it’s a low-risk strategy.
The Booker’s recent English language winners have the added virtue of being brilliant talkers. The conversation between Evaristo and the 2020 winner Douglas Stuart at the Southbank Centre, London, broadcast via Zoom, was the best literary discussion I have encountered. There was the inevitable biographical stuff which forms so much – too much – of public discussion about novels. But they went miles further when talking about the style, tone and craft of Stuart’s winner, Shuggie Bain, adding some oral magic to the Booker enterprise.
We’ve been boldly defying lockdown orthodoxy by trying to ration box sets in favour of old films. The plan was subverted by the French series The Bureau, coming in at a mere 50 marvellous episodes, but we are down to the last 700 or so of the New York Times’s “Top 1,000 Movies”, compiled 20 years ago.
One thing that’s emerged very clearly from ten months of viewing is just how technically primitive film sound was for so long. Well into the Eighties everyone appears to be talking from the same place on location or set. It’s much easier to adjust for the relative lack of visual sophistication in old movies than the clunky sound.
Although we think we live in a media universe where all that rules is the visual, the voice of a TV reporter or politician matters a great deal. It is a well absorbed democratic truth that in an election between two males, the follically luxuriant will beat the bald. Boris Johnson vs Keir Starmer at least gives Labour a chance in this regard next time around. But Johnson not only has his blond locks but a good vocal instrument. Listening to his Downing Street TV statements and news conferences – so often boosterish soufflés – he seems to me to get away with it because of his voice.
Bland spag bol
It’s been a Covid New Year. After various attempts to do the test I finally mastered the tricky technique of tonsil and nasal swabbing. For what it’s worth, booking tests was superbly efficient, but it took five days before the positive result pinged into my inbox. We appear to have lost interest in the stats about test, track and trace – for most of the spring this was the central point of discussion at news conferences – but a five-day gap to get a result surely bodes ill.
By then I had been visited by a brilliant and reassuring paramedic team. They brought with them an upgraded piece of kit to the blood oxygen pulse oximeter I had been using – bought for £30 on Amazon. The accordion-sized device looked like it weighed a ton, with numbers and charts and dancing lines. I felt better just looking at it.
Any taste at all that is neither sawdust nor disgustingly bitter has become a great luxury. I’d happily pay several pounds for small tubs of the one thing that works – low-fat fruit yogurt. Even if my taste returns my lifelong love of spaghetti bolognese may be over. The shock of eating it and discovering that it tasted like detergent will linger.
I was head of an Oxford college until just over a year ago. Brand Oxford suffers from the number of English politicians who studied there and whose hackle-raising projection of smooth assurance when running the country is attributed to their time learning the glib arts.
Oxford also gets it in the neck because of some, often inaccurately, presumed aspects of its undergraduate admission system – now much improved. But its world-class ranking comes largely from research. The Oxford Covid research story has not only been about the vaccine. The “Recovery” trial, launched in March, discovered in the summer that a known steroid, dexamethasone, could save many lives. And there has been much more.
I hope one benign Covid outcome will be a greater appreciation of the place – warts and all. We don’t have many first-rate institutions. Perhaps we can be a mite more generous to those we do have.
This article appears in the 13 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, American civil war