South Park Me

Political Grandees and the House of Lords

In the hagiography that greeted Mrs T's death, other politicians of her era emerged out of the woodwork. I was intrigued. How many of these old fogeys were still knocking about? The oldest I was certain of was Tony Benn (88). I also knew
Peter Tapsell, Douglas Hurd, Shirley Williams, Norman Tebbit (all 83), Dennis Skinner, Nigel Lawson (both 81),
Roy Hattersley and Michael Heseltine (80), were still alive. But who else? My findings threw up some interesting names...

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Nous sommes tous les Parisiens et les Beiruti

There are different ways to achieve political ends. Violence is a time-tested method to disrupt and divide peaceful societies anywhere and everywhere in the world. The scale of the tragedy may differ from place to place, but the intent and outcome are always the same. It matters not who the perpetrators are or what they claim to be fighting for. Throughout history, groups of people are prepared to use force to sow seeds of distrust. They want us to cower in fear. They want us to blame the other. They want us to target refugees. They want us to question everything. We must not succumb, now more than ever. Dozens of innocent civilians have been murdered. We know them, for they belong to our human family. Political boundaries and cultural distinctions are irrelevant at times like this. Toute notre solidarité avec le peuple de Paris et Beirut en ce moment de douleur. May the souls of the victims rest in peace, and may their families and friends find strength to overcome this calamity.

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South Park Me

Trudeau, Bush, Clinton, Le Pen... Kinnock?

Congratulations to Canada for throwing out the Tories and electing a majority Liberal government. About time, I might add. But is it just me who is uneasy with a seemingly growing trend of nepotism at the highest levels of Western democracies?

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South Park Me

An Over-Educated Generation and its Discontents

I've just handed in the following essay as part of my Academic Writing course at Harvard's Extension School. It culminates a six week process of cumulative work, that began with three assigned readings on aspects of education. We had to pick one of the three readings and build our exercises around it. The essay below is my final product. I hope you enjoy it. I think it can form the basis of a longer essay in the future, and there is certainly room for improvement, but I am fairly pleased with the way my writing has developed, particularly in regards to structure and transitions that have been a longstanding weakness of mine. I would love to receive feedback from you guys too! Thanks for taking the time to read it. The essays in the footnotes are worth a read too!

Intelligence does not have to be schooled and education takes multiple forms. What we need as a society is a recalibration of the assumptions we make about knowledge acquisition. In "Blue-Collar Brilliance", Mike Rose, a research professor at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at UCLA, challenges the widely-held notion that intelligence can only be measured by the amount of formal education a person has acquired, while offering an alternative viewpoint that emphasizes the extent to which blue and pink-collared workers harness their intellect.1 He is right to challenge the status-quo, but even his well-reasoned argument falls short of extending the thesis to society at large, regardless of whether someone is employed or not. And that is crucial, because for many people intelligence is still a synonym for formal education, and the more letters you have after your name, the more likely you are perceived to be of superior intelligence. By simply extending the cognitive-franchise to blue and pink-collared workers, we ignore and deny the cerebral contributions of millions of stay-at-home parents and other less academically qualified thinkers around the world.

The assumptions we make about knowledge and intelligence acquisition have a direct impact on the way our entire economy is structured. Just look at the salary and wage differentials between those generally classified as white and blue-collared workers. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data from May 2014, the mean annual wage for lawyers, airline pilots and financial managers was roughly $130,000. But for electricians and plumbers it was $54,000, and $42,000 for truck drivers. While for other blue and pink-collared workers such as janitors, grounds maintenance workers, auto mechanics and waitresses, they earned median hourly wages ranging from just $9.01 per hour to $17.84 per hour.2 Under the present system, wages do not reflect the amount of a worker’s thought and effort. The perfect example at the other extreme is that of a stay-at-home parent who does not earn any wage at all, but you would be hard-pressed to find one who does not stop thinking about their work (i.e. their children/partner) all day long. And despite the wide gap in mean wages between white and blue-collared workers, both groups of people toil a similar number of hours at their respective workplaces. If anything, blue and pink-collared employees work longer hours than their more formally educated counterparts, sometimes fitting in two or more jobs in order to make ends meet. And no doubt their experiences are as taxing on the mind as it is on the body.

But are the best and the brightest truly more intelligent? And have they acquired more knowledge? I do not believe so. Take for instance my octogenarian paternal grandmother. Denied formal schooling beyond fourth grade, she has remained a stay-at-home mom her entire life. Married before sixteen, five kids by her mid-twenties (including losing two in infancy), forced to accommodate six orphaned children from her in-law’s family soon after, and widowed at fifty, she has been compelled by circumstance to constantly adapt to a changing environment. Without a degree in home economics, she learnt how to ration a fixed supply of meager financial and food resources for the enlarged household. Religion helped provide direction in her life and she imparted the wisdom gained from its parables to her children. Even today when I visit her in my father’s hometown in southern India, it never ceases to amaze me how everybody who knows her, irrespective of age, solicits her advice to deal with life. Indeed she is the epitome of someone schooled in life. Despite lacking a formal education, she has cultivated her intelligence by acquiring knowledge through daily experience and put it to use without ever receiving a penny. And yet the society we live in would dismiss her rich contribution to it.

Our assumptions about intelligence, work and social class affect the way we treat even our fellow workers. Consider the example of a nurse in my father’s hospital who assists with surgeries. Various surgeons, including my father work with him, and through many years of experience and observation, the nurse has gained sufficient knowledge to offer useful suggestions to my father during a surgery, particularly in the middle of a tricky procedure or sticky situation. More often than not, the nurse’s insight has proven significant. But when my father recommended the nurse’s input to a fellow surgeon friend, the latter was not immediately convinced. It took several further surgeries before he acknowledged the nurse’s potential and contribution. Had the nurse completed the academic qualification to perform surgeries himself and offer suggestions, there would not have been any hesitation on the other surgeon’s part to accept my father’s advice. Rose posits that “generalizations about intelligence, work, and social class deeply affect our assumptions about ourselves and each other, guiding the ways we use our minds to learn, build knowledge, solve problems, and make our way through the world” and he is absolutely right.

Rose offers several compelling reasons as to why we need to redress the imbalance in the assumptions we make about intelligence and knowledge acquisition, by outlining how blue-collar workers’ “use of tools requires the studied refinement of stance, grip, balance, and fine-motor skills” while specifying how “carpenters have an eye for length, line, and angle; mechanics troubleshoot by listening, [and] hair stylists are attuned to shape, texture, and motion”. It is high time we added to this list the millions of lifelong homemakers who also tap into their intellect on a daily basis by rearing children and keeping families together.

With all this in mind, you may wonder how we might recalibrate the assumptions we make about intelligence and knowledge acquisition? For that we need to identify why it is calibrated wrong in the first place. Rose argues that “our culture – in Cartesian fashion – separates the body from the mind, so that, for example, we assume that the use of a tool does not involve abstraction. We reinforce this notion by defining intelligence solely on grades in school and numbers on IQ tests”. William Deresiewicz, an award-winning essayist and literary critic, builds on this by describing how “being at an elite college, and going on from an elite college – all involve numerical rankings. You learn to think of yourself in terms of those numbers”, while adding that “one of the great errors of an elite education, then, is that it teaches you to think that measures of intelligence and academic achievement are measures of value in some moral or metaphysical sense. But they’re not”.3 And they are both right.

Even so, Deresiewicz concedes that “the advantages of an elite education are indeed undeniable”. Yet, however incredible these elite institutions are, and however substantial the contribution they make to society, they also own a share of the responsibility for reinforcing divisions of people by class, occupation and intelligence. Deresiewicz hits the nail on the head when he says that “the problem begins when students are encouraged to forget this truth, when academic excellence becomes excellence in some absolute sense, when ‘better at X’ becomes simply ‘better’”. And that is the entrenched reality we need to overcome in order to redress the imbalance perpetuated by the prevailing system. One possible solution is to acknowledge, honor or even compensate those forms of intelligence that are not directly linked to formal education.

Yet attempting to change the way most people think is potentially a fool’s errand. But if we do not make any effort at all to change even slightly the way people make assumptions about intelligence, class and occupation, then life will carry on as it is and we will continue devaluing and degrading the contributions of millions – perhaps even billions – around the world. The onus is on us to make a difference, however small it may be. After all, as the sixth century B.C. Chinese philosopher Laozi pointed out, even “a journey of a thousand [miles] begins with a single step”.4 We already know that there are different ways to acquire knowledge and intelligence. So the journey we need to embark on does not involve uncharted territory. It simply requires a reorientation and retracing of steps to a fairer and more balanced society. Is that too much to ask?

  • You should also read this thought-provoking essay on education by Louis Menand - another of the three assigned to us.

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  • South Park Me

    Howdy, partners!

    I'm in America. I've been here 3 weeks, and I'll be here for 9 more. The weather in Providence, RI is a lot warmer (and sunnier) than London - so far. I'm thoroughly enjoying it. I'm staying with my sister and future bro-in-law. I'm taking a couple of online courses from Harvard's continuing education school and a course to prepare for the GRE. The GRE is a standardized test for postgrad studies in 'Murica. I've decided to turn my back on the legal profession and return to university next year. I'll be applying for public policy degrees in the neighborhood. Boston is commuting distance so there are quite a few options to pick from. I definitely don't have the grades or accomplishments to even consider the likes of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, but hopefully I will get admitted to the next rung of alternatives below it.

    My family would like me to remain in America after my postgrad degree, preferably close to my sister, but I am pretty clear in my mind that this is just a short adventure across the pond. That said, I am really looking forward to the opportunity of studying in America, and I am open to the idea of staying here for a year or two afterwards if I can secure a job in DC (or anywhere else, as long as it's in public policy). But I would like to return to London eventually.

    I haven't quite left permanently either. Once my three months on the visa waiver program ends, I'll be flying back to London for the Christmas period. As amazing as the weather is right now and as cool as it is to be in America, I miss Blighty. Thank fuck, if you'll pardon my French, for smartphones and tablets. And thank fuck for the BBC. The radio app has been a godsend. It's like I've never left. Although waking up to You & Yours has been an interesting experience; sort of like the opposite of waking up to Up All Night when I'm in Oman or India. And with free VPN apps, I've even been able to tune into Sky Sports to watch live events, while catching-up on the latest comedies via the iPlayer app!

    It was also interesting to vote in the Labour leadership election while sat on my computer here in America. I didn't give Jeremy Corbyn any of my nominations and instead plumped for Kendall, Cooper and Burnham in that order. None of my choices did well in the deputy leadership and London mayoral candidate election either. But nothing was as amusing as the media and shadow cabinet meltdown that greeted Corbyn's victory declaration. The Tories and right-wing media predictably labelled him a threat to humanity. And Blairites clearly didn't know what to do; cross the floor, jump ship or piss from inside the tent. Basically a raft of similar options that will not change the result in 2020.

    And poor Corbyn, the chap clearly wants politics to change, but I don't think he feels comfortable leading the circus. Leadership necessitates compromise, and if there is something that sets Corbyn apart, it is his principled consistency. Love or loathe him, he has made a career out of it. The leadership will be a test of his political ambition and nous, neither of which he has displayed until now. Yet there are many attributes that I admire in Corbyn (the backbencher), and it is refreshing that someone of his disposition has risen to the top of British politics.

    Alas, one wonders whether Labour should reduce itself to simply a party of protest, or seek to position itself as a government-in-waiting, ready to take over from the Tories at a general election. It's one thing to secure a thumping mandate from the cheerleading squad, quite another appealing to a wider electorate.

    I wasn't even bothered about his appearance at PMQs, at St Paul's cathedral, his insistence to remain silent during the national anthem, or the chaotic manner in which the shadow cabinet was formed. It reflected a person for whom substance matters over spin. But I can understand why the electorate may have viewed it differently. You know, the same people whose votes he needs in 2020. Corbyn faces an uphill battle. The Tories plan to reduce the number of MPs and re-draw constituency boundaries - largely to their benefit. And there's still no sign that Scotland will abandon the SNP. Which leaves about 50-75 marginals to gain from the Tories in order to form a government.

    Corbynistas are banking on three things: the 35% that didn't vote in May, old Labour UKIP voters and old Labour Green/Lib Dem voters. It's true, a lot of people didn't vote in May and Corbyn's election may inspire some people to vote for the first time/again. On the contrary, Labour voters who really don't like Corbyn's policies, but voted for Labour earlier this year, may jump ship too. It also remains to be seen whether young voters stick with Corbyn, if he continues to compromise on his principles (eg: accepting a role as a privy counsellor etc). As for old Labour UKIP voters, UKIP finished second in many Labour-held seats. There wouldn't be much point if those voters returned to Labour. Labour needs UKIP voters in Tory-held seats to 'return to the fold'. It's a big ask. One suspects such UKIP voters would not have been impressed with Corbyn's refusal to sing the national anthem at an event commemorating the Battle of Britain. And as for old Labour Green/Lib Dem voters, well they may gain a dozen seats or so that way, but what use will that be? They need at least 50. I just cannot see Corbyn winning a general election.

    It may all be a moot point. Several pundits have chipped in with their predictions of how long they think Corbyn will last, ranging from a few days to three years. Even members of his shadow cabinet refuse to say with any conviction that he will fight the next general election. For what it's worth, my guess is between six months to a year. Once the novelty wears off, once conference season ends, once there are a few more media "gaffes", and once the opinion polls tank, we'll see whether he roughs it out. Unlike power-hungry careerists who would refuse to fall on their sword until the last possible moment, I think Mr Corbyn would recognise his role in a sinking ship and jump.

    One of Corbyn's illustrious predecessor's is often quoted (though perhaps incorrectly) as saying that a week is a long time in politics. Well, what a week it has been. To those who complained that politics had become a sterile affair, you've got your comeuppance. Now then, are you prepared for the consequences? I'll be watching from afar with interest.

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    South Park Me

    Corbynmania: good for democracy; bad for government

    There are many things to like about Jeremy Corbyn, even if one does not agree with his politics. One facet stands out in particular: he is a principled politician who walks the walk. And few can claim the same at the highest levels of politics anywhere in the world. That alone should be enough to welcome his participation in Labour's leadership election. Mr Corbyn represents a significant chunk of the Labour family, one that has been forced to accept the domination of the party's opposite-wing since the early 1980s. It has been an uneasy marriage of convenience period of submission, aided by resignation in the face of nineteen years of Tory government. But the shackles are off. The loony-left will stay silent no more.

    And why should they? This is their party too. They have as much right to be heard as the Blairites. After all, what is the point of democracy if alternative viewpoints are shut out of the mainstream? Surely, a healthy democracy is one in which (aspirant) political leaders can access a fair platform to freely exchange ideas with the body politic, regardless of how impractical, nasty, or ridiculous they may seem. Choice is paramount in the court of public opinion. Let the people decide whose evidence stands intense scrutiny.

    That doesn't mean I believe Mr Corbyn can become prime minister, or more importantly if he did, believe he would make a good one. I certainly prefer his brand of politics to that of the swivel-eyed right. But I would rather we avoided both in government. What the country needs is a radical centrist government of all the talents. In my Labour ministry, Mr Corbyn would either be offered Foreign or Environment Secretary. The former is a job he is best-suited to and one that I suspect he secretly craves. A cynic might even say, apart from outright exclusion, it is a role in which he could cause least economic damage with his socialist leanings. There might be some truth in that.

    To some/many people, the Labour leadership contest is a debate about what the party stands for. Not for me. Leaders come and leaders go, the party carries on. Leadership contests reflect the political realities of a particular time. For better or worse, the conditions are ripe for Mr Corbyn. He isn't the first candidate from his wing of the party to contest the leadership and he won't be the last. He isn't even their most charismatic spokesperson. But he has struck a chord and gained momentum.

    It is unfortunate that some commentators have used fairly pungent language to dismiss other candidates and scaremonger their supporters. Blame for this can be apportioned to all sides. Sad as it is, that is one of the fair prices we pay for a free society. But we should do more to encourage a courteous battle that attacks policies rather than personalities. Because at the end of the day, regardless of the unhelpful labels attached to candidates and their supporters, people like me will always prefer a Labour government, however right-wing, to a Tory one that drifts left/centre (on individual policies) for opportunistic purposes.

    Politicians consciously choose their party membership. This is crucial because even though the politics of Cameron, Osborne, Clegg, Blair and Kendall may seem very similar, the fact they belong to different parties is significant. It signals to me that the philosophy underpinning their politics is at some level driven by the general aims of their party. And that makes all the difference. People like me cannot stomach the thought of voting Tory, let alone work for the party. But we do share an enthusiasm for the positive aspects of individual freedom, private enterprise and wealth creation. We are also greatly troubled by the vast disparities in wealth, education and health, at home and abroad, and the negative impacts of our imperial legacy. The question is, how do we square the circle?

    It is a conundrum that I have grappled with ever since I became politically aware as a preadolescent. And though my politics now is closer-aligned to Liz Kendall than the other three candidates, the diplomat in me can identify with Andy Burnham's obvious desire to unite opposing factions of the party. That there is significant disagreement among the Labour family is to be cherished. Dissent is at the heart of our open and tolerant society. The key is to recognise that the majority of us largely agree on the ultimate aim: to establish as fair a playing field as possible for everyone, not just in Britain, but if possible, even in the world. The disagreement pertains solely to the means adopted.

    The problem is exacerbated by a fixation of pigeon-holing people, policies and ideas into neat boxes to fit our narrow world-view. Speak in favour of free markets and be accused of Blairism, or worse, of being a Tory. Talk about re-nationalising the railways, and be accused of importing communism. Talk about limiting AIDS treatment to British citizens, and be accused of racism. And so forth. We need to take a much more liberal and loose approach to strict definitions. We also need to learn how to let go of the past and treat the present on its own merits. It is understandable why the mass media adopts these simplistic strategies to explain complex issues, but we don't have to play their game.

    We need to co-opt a grown-up politics where it is perfectly normal to discuss Corbyn's policies with those of his opponents, as though the only differences between them were the reasons put forward as to why one should be favoured over another. I truly believe that there are always positives to gain even from those whose politics are diametrically opposed to mine. Ideally, we need to take the best of everything, discard the worst, but be willing to discuss absolutely anything so that we can test, scrutinise and tease out the best and worst bits, before jumping to conclusions. There are few (if any) easy solutions to the myriad of decisions taken by politicians. Every choice results in benefits and costs. Every. Single. One. Even the best ones.

    Ultimately, every generation should have an opportunity to challenge allegedly settled states of affair. Who knows, the debate might throw up some interesting or unforeseen perspectives from which we could all learn something. Or perhaps not. But we won't know for sure until we try. So to those who say, Jez We Can, count me in for the ride. We can worry about the destination after 12 September.

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    South Park Me

    The Windsors in august company

    "One of the things that always makes me furious is the knee-jerk stupidity of saying that the Daily Mail used to support fascism, thereby implying that it is somehow tainted goods in its modern form. I certainly have my differences with the politics of the modern Mail, but it is blind prejudice to link what it published, for a brief period, in the 1930s to what it does today. So I was delighted to see on Anna Raccoon's blog last week a piece by Matt Wardman in which he presented a media history lesson. He omitted a crucial fact and I'll come to that in a moment. But he made two very important points - firstly, the Mail was not the only paper to carry articles supporting Oswald Mosley's blackshirts. The Daily Mirror did too."

    (Don't damn the Daily Mail for its fascist flirtation 80 years ago, Roy Greenslade, 6 December 2011)

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    South Park Me

    16 July 1935: World’s first parking meter installed


    "The world’s first parking meter, known as Park-O-Meter No. 1, is installed on the southeast corner of what was then First Street and Robinson Avenue in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma on this day in 1935.

    The parking meter was the brainchild of a man named Carl C. Magee, who moved to Oklahoma City from New Mexico in 1927. Magee had a colorful past: As a reporter for an Albuquerque newspaper, he had played a pivotal role in uncovering the so-called Teapot Dome Scandal (named for the Teapot Dome oil field in Wyoming), in which Albert B. Fall, then-secretary of the interior, was convicted of renting government lands to oil companies in return for personal loans and gifts. He also wrote a series of articles exposing corruption in the New Mexico court system, and was tried and acquitted of manslaughter after he shot at one of the judges targeted in the series during an altercation at a Las Vegas hotel.

    By the time Magee came to Oklahoma City to start a newspaper, the Oklahoma News, his new hometown shared a common problem with many of America’s urban areas–a lack of sufficient parking space for the rapidly increasingly number of automobiles crowding into the downtown business district each day. Asked to find a solution to the problem, Magee came up with the Park-o-Meter. The first working model went on public display in early May 1935, inspiring immediate debate over the pros and cons of coin-regulated parking. Indignant opponents of the meters considered paying for parking un-American, as it forced drivers to pay what amounted to a tax on their cars, depriving them of their money without due process of law.

    Despite such opposition, the first meters were installed by the Dual Parking Meter Company beginning in July 1935; they cost a nickel an hour, and were placed at 20-foot intervals along the curb that corresponded to spaces painted on the pavement. Magee’s invention caught on quickly: Retailers loved the meters, as they encouraged a quick turnover of cars–and potential customers–and drivers were forced to accept them as a practical necessity for regulating parking. By the early 1940s, there were more than 140,000 parking meters operating in the United States. Today, Park-O-Meter No. 1 is on display in the Statehood Gallery of the Oklahoma Historical Society."

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    South Park Me

    15 July 1986: Columbia Records drop Johnny Cash after 26 yrs


    "The critically acclaimed 2002 biopic Walk The Line depicts the life and career of Johnny Cash from his initial rise to stardom in the 1950s to his resurgence following a drug-fueled decline in the 1960s. The selection of this time span made perfect sense from a Hollywood perspective, but from a historical perspective, it left out more than half of the story. There was still another dramatic resurgence to come in the second half of Johnny Cash’s 50-year career, which reached another low point on this day in 1986, when Columbia Records dropped him from its roster after 26 years of history-making partnership.

    Columbia first signed Johnny Cash in 1960, using a lucrative contract to lure him away from his Sun Records, his first label and also the early home of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins. Cash’s first Columbia single, “All Over Again,” made the country Top 5, and his second, “Don’t Take Your Guns To Town” made it all the way to #1, while also crossing over to the pop Top 40. But the biggest hits of Cash’s career were yet to come, including an incredible eight #1 albums in an eight-year span: Ring of Fire: The Best of Johnny Cash (1963); I Walk The Line (1964); Johnny Cash’s Greatest Hits (1967); At Folsom Prison (1968); At San Quentin (1969); Hello, I’m Johnny Cash (1970); The Johnny Cash Show (1970); and Man In Black (1971). During this period, Johnny Cash established himself as a titanic figure in American popular culture while selling millions upon millions of records for Columbia, but by the mid-1980s, fashions in country music had shifted dramatically away from his old-school style, and the hits simply stopped coming.

    In 1986, having also recently dropped jazz legend Miles Davis from its roster of artists, Columbia chose to end its no-longer-profitable relationship with Johnny Cash. Cash did not remain professionally adrift for long, however, releasing four original albums and numerous re-recordings of earlier material over the next seven years on Mercury Records. But it was not until 1994 that Cash truly found his creative bearings again. That was the year that he released the album American Recordings, the first in a series of albums on the label of the same name headed by Rick Rubin, the original producer of the Beastie Boys and the co-founder, with Russell Simmons, of Def Jam Records.

    Under Rubin’s influence, Cash moved to a raw, stripped-down sound that proved to be enormously successful with critics, with country traditionalists and with hipster newcomers to country music. When his second Rubin-produced album, Unchained, won a Grammy for Best Country Album in 1998, American Recordings placed a full-page ad in Billboard magazine featuring a 1970 photo of Cash brandishing his middle finger under the sarcastic line of copy, “American Recordings and Johnny Cash would like to acknowledge the Nashville music establishment and country radio for your support.”

    Johnny Cash went on to have two more massively successful solo albums with American Recordings prior to his death in 2003. Rick Rubin went on to become co-head of Columbia Records in 2007."

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    South Park Me

    BBC Radio 4's Reflections...with Peter Hennessy

    "But my father summed it up pretty well by saying, "Nobody in our family has ever voted Conservative, without a stiff drink before, and afterwards."" ~David Owen

    If a week is a long time in politics1, what about a lifetime? Tasked with the challenge of teasing out salient introspections from the life and times of some of Britain's grandees, is the contemporary political historian, Peter Hennessy. He delivers an insightful programme, as it launches its third series with the enigmatic David Owen. Having listened to several episodes, Owen's is among the best. I also recommend the one with John Major from last year. In all, Hennessy has talked to:

    01. Shirley Williams
    02. Jack Straw
    03. Norman Tebbit
    04. Neil Kinnock
    05. John Major
    06. Roy Hattersley
    07. David Steel
    08. Margaret Beckett
    09. David Owen

    And by the end of this series he will have interviewed Norman Lamont and Clare Short too. Each episode is either 28 or 43 minutes (depending on the series), with the latter forming the perfect length to explore a lifetime without inducing boredom and avoid glossing over multiple events or issues. But there are a few peripheral shortcomings. For instance, by the end of this series the uneven ratio of guests by political party will have been exacerbated to comprise: 5 Labour, 3 Tories, 2 SDP/Lib Dems and 1 Liberal. Given that Williams and Owen were also cabinet secretaries with Labour, you could question whether the breakdown was a matter of design, bad timing or lack of Conservative enthusiasm (I find this doubtful). This only matters because it's produced by the BBC. There's also the issue of gender ratio with three women out of eleven by the end of this series. And one other minor criticism about Hennessy's interview technique. When teasing out their reflections, he sometimes comes across as presumptuous, but it may have been an intended tactic or perhaps more likely, my imaginative nitpicking. Those minor quibbles apart, it is an absolutely fantastic programme and essential listening for the anorak.

    1 Possibly misattributed to former British prime minister and Labour leader, Harold Wilson.

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