Thunder Down Under and Tony’s prose

On the final afternoon of the second Test in Adelaide, in which the England cricket team was triumphant, I drove up to the Barossa Valley, where I was to have lunch with some of the finest winemakers in the state of South Australia. On my previous visits, the nation had been in the grip of, and anxiously fretting about, the "Big Dry", a near decade-long drought that had left many Australians fearful of the long-term sustainability of living in a burned-out country at the bottom of the world.

This year, there has been a change in the weather: 2010 is among the wettest on record. Whole towns and settlements along the eastern seaboard have been affected by flooding, with mass evacuations, and, that afternoon as I drove to the Barossa, I passed through a hailstorm that was freakish in its intensity - winds were gusting at more than 100km per hour and there was flash flooding. This was not characteristic summer weather in Australia's driest state. Not long afterwards, as I arrived in the Barossa and with the temperature rising rapidly, my car was assaulted by locusts that, at first, I mistook for butterflies - until I foolishly opened a window and in they surged. First flooding, then pestilence . . .

The rains returned around midnight as an astonishing electrical storm ripped through the Barossa, leaving devastation in its wake: cut power supplies, flooded roads, rampant rivers, fallen trees. That night, I watched from my window as lighting repeatedly struck the hills nearby, illuminating the surrounding landscape as in some kind of extreme fantasy war game. So this, I thought, is how the world ends.

Ghost town

In spite of outward appearances, and for all their g'day-mate cheerfulness and sun-loving jauntiness, Australians often seem to me to be deeply anxious, unsure of their place in the world. There is tension within the federation itself, with some in the state of Western Australia (WA), aka "China's quarry", muttering about secession. The resources boom has created unsurpassed prosperity in the far west. The state's Liberal premier, Colin Barnett, is in open opposition to Julia Gillard's fragile, Labor-led coalition and is resentful that the wealth of WA is being redistributed to the struggling eastern states.

The environmentalist Tim Flannery has predicted that, because of water shortages, Perth, the capital of WA, will become the world's first "ghost metropolis". What is indisputable is that Perth is running out of water. The paradox for Australia is this: the mining boom in the west is the engine of the country's wealth but it is also contributing to changes in the climate that may ultimately lead to the creation of more and more ghost towns. It's a paradox that, at present, seems unresolvable.

The emotions of others

On the long flight home, I read another couple of hundred pages of Tony Blair's A Journey. The book has a formidable consistency of voice: wised-up, always self-justificatory and fervent. Evidently, this was written not by a committee of ghosts but by Blair himself, as he claims, and it is all the better for it. "When I read someone's prose, I reckon to get a sense of their moral life," Martin Amis once wrote. Reading Blair's straightforward, unambiguous prose, one does get a sense of his moral life: he is an Manichaean, guided by ethical absolutes. Above all, he spookily sees himself as having been chosen: even before the death of John Smith, he had intimations of greatness and sensed, Macbeth-like, that he was destined to lead.

Writing of Princess Diana, Blair says: "We were both in our ways manipulative people, perceiving quickly the emotions of others and able instinctively to play with them." This is one of the most revealing passages in the book and it is interesting to read it when reflecting on David Miliband's failed attempt to win the Labour leadership.

In January 2009, I spent a week travelling with Miliband while he was on official business in India. In so many ways, I was impressed by his energy, intelligence, mastery of a brief and decency. He was not a Blairite stooge but rather a complicated politician, with deep, egalitarian instincts. Yet this magazine did not endorse his leadership bid. The reason was simple: Miliband lacked - and I wrote this at the time in a long profile - what the psychologist Robert Sternberg calls "practical intelligence". For Sternberg, practical intelligence is "knowing what to say to whom, knowing when to say it and knowing how to say it for maximum effect". It was clear to me that Miliband, unlike Blair, had no gift for perceiving quickly the emotions of others. Again and again, I watched as he was outmanoeuvered by more devious Indian politicians or as he misread the mood of a meeting or lunch discussion. Odd to say it of a senior politician, but Miliband was simply not manipulative enough.

Hard times

When I became editor of the New Statesman in October 2008, I received a handwritten letter from Anthony Howard, who was editor of this "paper", as he prefers to call it, from 1972 to 1978. Being editor of the NS would be "hard", he said, but I had to stick it out until the centenary in 2013. To me, that seemed a long way off and not something I should think about. But this is my third Christmas double issue as editor. In a few weeks, as we celebrate the arrival of another year, the centenary will not seem that far away at all. Tony: what shall we do?

Happiness economics

“Are you happy?" I was asked a few weeks ago on Radio 4's Any Questions?. At the time, I answered the question by avoiding it altogether and quoting J S Mill: "Ask yourself whether you are happy and you cease to be so."

Happiness economics is a burgeoning industry, even if the findings of the leading practitioners seem to me to be mostly banal. Analysis of the data often results in statements of the blindingly obvious. I do think that Mill was right: to ask yourself if you are happy is to invite the onset of unhappiness or, at least, intense introspection. It seems that, as rational, questing animals, we are hard-wired to seek meaning in a world where ultimately there may be done - and that disjunction between what we wish to know and the limitations of our knowledge lies at the heart of the human dilemma. In his essay in this issue, Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, writes that the beginning of the world, "if there was one, is still a mystery . . . And the expanding universe will continue - perhaps for ever - becoming ever colder, ever emptier."

So there was no beginning and there will be no end - that's quite enough to contemplate as we prepare for the festivities ahead. Happy Christmas. l

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 20 December 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special