Small pleasures

Tea, in a small polystyrene cup, on the way to work, from Mr Patel’s paper stall on platform 1 at Radlett station.

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What are you going to do about poetry?

Poetry’s a drug on the market. You can’t move the stuff. No one reads it any more. The people who learnt it by heart at school are all dead or demented. The poems they treasured – stirring, descriptive, romantic – have fallen out of fashion. Poetry book sales are at an all time low. Various last great hopes – Martians, punks, rappers (and Pam Ayres) – are all now history. Without State sponsorship poetry would already have disappeared. Poetry’s a lost cause.

The people at American poetry publisher Knopf (part of Bertelsmann’s Random House) are acting like it’s not dead at all, though. Doing as they should: marketing the sublime with a sense of fun and visible joy in the product. Quite undefeated by sales figures and shifting public sentiment, obviously. They’ve filled their web site with neat stuff (although I think it’s a bit thin on community despite some obvious opportunities). I like the ‘broadsides‘, which are little poetry posters you can print out and the eCards make perfect sense and there are plenty of poems, some of them read out by the poets themselves.

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I’ve been in denial

I’ve been sort of vaguely expecting that Tony Blair’s troubles would fade with the arrival of the warm weather and that, by conference time, he’d be secure again and ready for at least another year of office. I’ve been blithely (and largely unconsciously, I think) dismissing each new crisis – each new horrifying misstep more like – as the exaggerated product of the malign anti-Blair media’s bitter campaign against the PM and only incidentally a result of anything he’s done himself. So I suppose I’m a loyalist. I’m not stupid, though and I think an important threshold has been passed

I’m now mentally preparing myself for a Brown premiership. If I’m honest I’d say that it’s Brown’s succession that I’ve really been blocking out, rather than Blair’s passing. I’m worried. I think Tony’s dour neighbour is so lacking in the PM’s preternatural charm and quite awesome ability to absorb criticism (Blair seems to soak up disapproval and convert it to pure, undissipated energy), that putting Brown in sole charge of the action will directly threaten Labour’s hold on power.

Of course this is ironic since it’s really Labour’s Constant Chancellor we’ve got to thank for the visible and positive change in our schools and hospitals and for the large and important improvement in the circumstances of poor families and pensioners since 1997. The last couple of days seem to support the idea of a managed transition, as if they’ve got their heads together and sorted out an orderly process. Blair’s speech at Reuters yesterday reads like a valedictory, like the speech of a man preparing for his next role, perhaps running a transnational body – or founding a new one – I think he may be too big or too politically unsuitable for all the current ones.

Maybe Blair’s the man to set up the institute (agency? Force?) designed to do all the intervening in local wars and against dictators and demagogues that his speech proposes: shall we call it ‘UN 2.0’? Brown’s budget, likewise, sounds final: expansive, bravura redistributive showbiz, a grand, confident, proprietorial gesture. “I’m ready for my close-up Mr De Mille”. I’m certain now that Blair’s departure is imminent and I expect it’ll be done and dusted before the Autumn. An election early in the Summer recess would put Brown in place in time for conference and allow Blair at least a month or two to tie up those loose ends (and God knows, there are some loose ends…).

Goldfish and Beavers

Fishy Malishy Golden Treasure Nemo, our Goldfish
So here’s why I was late for work Tuesday. I was photographing the goldfish. My 7 year-old son rushed into the kitchen to tell me that those morons on the BBC’s kids’ channel want everyone to send in photographs of their pets. Since the only pet we own is a goldfish (Fishy, or ‘Fishy Malishy Golden Treasure Nemo’ to give him his full name) I spent the next fifteen minutes trying to persuade Fishy to come round the front of the bowl so I could take his picture, thus missing my train. Anyway, this is the best I could do.

Later that day, and to round out this picture of suburban weirdness, I went to be a helper at the same son’s Beavers troop (Beavers are the bit of the Scout Movement that comes before the Cubs, since you’re asking, although we really don’t know why called them Beavers. Why not Badgers? That’s a much better name). Anyway, what we wound up doing, in that cold scout hut Tuesday night, was improvising a sort of riotous relay race (involving a lot of those square carpet samples) because the vicar failed to show up to give a talk.

I’m not sure why I’m telling you this. Perhaps I want you to think of me as a sort of homely guy who’s got his priorities right or perhaps I’m looking for sympathy. Anyway, the vicar did show up in the end, only it was too late for him to give his talk so he cleverly seized the opportunity to discuss forgiveness with the boys, all of whom said they really did forgive him for being so late, except my son, who said ‘no’ quite loudly when asked. Afterwards the boys wrote letters to some Dutch Beavers because, we’re told, they all speak perfect English…

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Some centre-left reading for you

The thing about Britain’s big newspapers, the ones we call broadsheets (although they come in all sorts of sizes these days), is that they belong to two groups: pre-industrial, 18th Century landowner newsletters (like The Times) and steam-powered, 19th Century, industrial-era organs of the modern (like The Guardian). If you look very closely you can still see the shadow of their origins today. They’re all in decline, of course but one of them, Alan Rusbridger’s Guardian, finds itself, quite accidentally, in something of a sweet spot in this torrid political moment.

With all three major parties fighting over a very crowded scrap of territory about the size of a toupé, just to the left of the old-fashioned centre, The Guardian’s special relationship with both sides of the newly recentred British political scene has paid off in a big way. Essentially, if you want to read about politics in Britain now there’s very little point getting anything else, least of all the quite bankrupt (and very ugly) Times. Look at last week’s Guardian: Will Hutton’s hymn of praise for the Education Bill (admittedly in sister paper The Observer) cheek by jowl with Polly Toynbee’s open disgust.

Also of note, you’ve got Fiona Millar’s nicely forensic attempt to elucidate Gordon Brown’s education policy from years of speeches in which he doesn’t mention education at all and (off topic a bit, I know) there’s Simon Jenkins’ not-unfriendly hatchet job on the Beeb’s unhealthy hold over our legislators’ affections and, swinging back round to our theme, Jackie Ashley’s excellent piece about the surprising (and apparently total) victory of the centre-left in British politics. And, bringing us right up to date, here’s Martin Kettle’s assertion, on the paper’s new comment blog, that Jack Dromey dumped Blair in the political merde for reasons of purest principle and not because he was “…outraged to be snubbed by a Labour johnny-come-lately like Lord Levy…” There. Read that lot. Get yourself up to date.

Under the ice

The Archive Hour is one of those Radio 4 programmes that really ought to have a decent… erm… archive. Since it doesn’t and since you won’t be able to listen to this brilliant edition – presented by Charles Wheeler – about the USS Nautilus’ quite amazing voyage under the North Pole in 1958 if you don’t get a move on, here’s an MP3.

It turns out that, while the Russians were winning the race to escape the planet, the Americans were profoundly and irreversibly winning the race for domination of the planet’s surface by demonstrating the ability to deliver an ICBM to… just about anywhere from… just about anywhere (and with air conditioning, a grand staircase between decks and lobster on Fridays while they were at it). Brilliant radio.

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Google on Radio 4

Jonathan Freedland’s excellent The Long View maintains no archive and isn’t part of the Beeb’s podcasting trial so here’s the latest episode – a terrific parallel reading of 21st Google and 19th Century Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, with The Economist’s Tom Standage in attendance.

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Commuting again

As some of you know, I’ve been at home for a while now, developing a detailed understanding of my children’s appalling table manners (and helping my wife start a business, of which you will soon, I’m sure, be made aware). I’m not doing that any more, though. I’m working – in a glittering tower in the quite amazing Mediaeval walled city they call Canary Wharf.

I wear a swipe card on a ribbon, eat stone-baked pizza in a gorgeous cafeteria and shop in a supermarket that has its own sushi bar. It’s disorienting and quite exotic and I’m enjoying it a lot. I’m working with some clever young people (who humour me when I tell them stories about the old days) and after work we go to a bar where a girl dispenses Tequila from a sort of gun-belt.

Back in the office, we’re covering the walls in colourful plans and flow charts and filling the empty desks with more clever people as fast as we can. What we’re up to, though, is a secret…

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