Lightning storms, Philip Roth’s women, and why geography is now the poshest subject

The bank holiday weekend saw what the BBC called “the mother of all thunderstorms”. In the 1950s, then, I suppose I witnessed the grandmother.

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Theresa May’s brilliant scheme to fudge Brexit continues. A few days ago, the Financial Times reported that preparations for “no deal” have ground to a halt. None of the independent regulatory bodies that would be required – for medicines, chemicals and civil nuclear safety, for example – have been set up. No relevant legislation is in draft. Whitehall officials are being discouraged from taking on relevant projects. The day after the FT report, the Daily Telegraph told its readers that, on the contrary, more than 300 projects are under way to plan for a hard Brexit. But they are being kept quiet for fear of upsetting Brussels.

This confusion about what is going on will continue up to and far beyond 11pm on Friday 29 March 2019, when Britain is supposed to leave the EU. According to the latest reports, we shall be committed to paying contributions to Brussels until 2027. In that year, I predict, we shall still be arguing about whether we have left the EU or not.

Industrious Ind

After the Windrush scandal, Hugh Ind, Home Office director general of immigration enforcement, is moving to the Cabinet Office to oversee the public sector apprenticeship scheme. This, the Times reports, “is seen in Whitehall and Westminster as a demotion”. Ministers are supposedly trying to improve Britain’s deficient technical skills. They have set a target of 200,000 apprenticeships by 2020 for the public sector and three million (against about 700,000 now) for the economy as a whole. If they are serious, why is Ind’s new job a “demotion”?

Colouring in

When OGS Crawford, who eventually became a distinguished archaeologist, told his Oxford University tutor in 1909 that he would give up reading Greats (Classics) and switch to geography, he felt, he later wrote, “like a son telling his father he had decided to marry a barmaid”. He “lost caste”, he added. Now, according to new admissions figures, geography is the poshest subject in Oxford. Of 204 students on the course, 192 are from the three higher social groups, more than half of them from private schools. Meanwhile Classics is pushed down to second-poshest subject

Oxford’s geography professor Danny Dorling tells me that geography went out of fashion because, once seen as valuable for future rulers of the empire (it told them where the rivers were), it was considered less useful when we ran out of colonies. But, he says, it has risen in esteem because it put itself at the heart of the work on climate change and global economic inequality – both of which preoccupied the latest gathering of the global elite in Davos.

Great Americans

The death of Philip Roth has reopened the debate about whether the author of Portnoy’s Complaint was a misogynist. The more interesting question is why nearly all Great American Novels seem to be written by men focusing on men’s problems, with women either playing a peripheral role or causing the men’s problems in the first place. In Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, widely acclaimed as the founding text of American literature, women are mostly nags and shrews.

John Updike, accused of portraying women as “wives, sex objects and purely domestic creatures” (his words), tried to atone by writing The Witches of Eastwick – which portrayed women as, well, witches. Saul Bellow’s novels, wrote the literary critic Leslie Fiedler, were “singularly lacking a real or vivid female character”. The feminist Kate Millett described Norman Mailer as “a prisoner of the virility cult”. Don DeLillo put a baseball match at the heart of Underworld.

The great national novel is a peculiarly American concept, and only men with large egos would aspire to write it. Nobody talks about the Great British Novel but, if they did, Middlemarch could plausibly claim the accolade and that, of course, was written by a woman.

Video nasty

Why did England’s cricket team unexpectedly lose the summer’s first test against Pakistan so badly? The answer is that they knew too little about their opponents. Six of the Pakistan team had played only 15 tests between them. Coaches, poring over videos to analyse strengths and weaknesses, now dictate tactics in fine detail. Little video evidence was available for Pakistan’s young team. Without it, coaches cannot guide players who have long been deprived of any capacity to think for themselves.

The erstwhile NS columnist Ed Smith, now England cricket’s national selector, should take note. Players of proven international standard should always be picked. But if, like England and Pakistan, you have few such players, you should introduce largely unknown talent. In picking 20-year-old Dominic Bess, who had played only 16 first-class matches in his life, Smith was on the right track. Bess made a half-century in the second innings and briefly gave England hope of winning.

Lightning reactions

Over the bank holiday weekend, my wife and I, walking home from our local Chinese restaurant, watched what a BBC weather person called “the mother of all thunderstorms” – during which lightning struck southern England between 15,000 and 20,000 times – with apprehension. Yet not as much apprehension as I recall from the 1950s when I witnessed what, I suppose, must have been the grandmother of storms.

Then in my early teens, I was camping with friends in a remote area of Leicestershire. Without smartphones or radios, and hearing no thunder, we had no idea what caused the dramatic flashes of light in the distance. Nuclear war, we decided, had begun. When we finally ventured further afield – with the vague intention of raiding abandoned grocery shops – we were a little disappointed to find civilisation still intact and our school presumably open the following Monday. 

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 appears in the 01 June 2018 issue of the New Statesman, God isn’t dead