Thank you and farewell “Madam Secretary”

February 15th, 2020 by Roger Darlington

I suppose all good things have to come to an end and I’ve just watched the last episode of the American television series “Madam Secretary”. The series began in 2014 and seasons 1-5 each had between 20-23 episodes. The sixth and last season has concluded with just 10 episodes, making 120 episodes in all. I’ve seen them all.

OK, this political drama was not as good as “The West Wing”, but nothing has been as good as “The West Wing” – the best television ever in my view. However, “Madam Secretary” did a good job in – as did “The West Wing” – showing politics as a power for good and representing lots of stories taken from real life.

Tea Leoni was the Secretary of State for 110 episodes and President for 10, As President, she survived impeachment and her final act in the series was to revive the Equal Rights Amendment. I enjoyed the series and will miss it. Now my need for a regular fix of American politics will rest solely on “The Daily Show” with Trevor Noah.

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A review of the important new movie “Queen & Slim”

February 14th, 2020 by Roger Darlington

How many American films have a black woman as both writer and director and black actors in both the lead roles and in most of the support roles? But this is how it should be for a work that reflects the Black Lives Matter agenda and it is a genre-blending triumph, part thriller-cum-social commentary, part road movie-cum-romance. One of the characters refers to the two principals as a black “Bonnie and Clyde” (and certainly the ending has echoes of that film), but they were hardline criminals and a better comparison would be with the movie “Thelma And Louise”, a tale of accidental criminals on the run with character-changing consequences. 

The viewer is plunged straight into the narrative – a young black couple on a first date in an Ohio diner: the Queen character, an uptight attorney who has had a bad day and is soon to have a much worse night, about whom we will learn a lot more, and the Slim personage, a more relaxed kind of everyman – well, every young, black American – about whom we learn very little. On the ride from the diner, they are stopped by a white traffic cop. What could possibly go wrong? Only when things have gone spectactularly awry do we have the film’s title and opening credits, but we are now hooked and will stay so for as long as this couple is on the run, meeting a whole range of colourful characters and driving through an impoverished land. 

The writer is Lena Waite and the debut feature director is Melina Matsoukas. They are brilliantly served in the eponymous roles by Daniel Kaluuya (“Get Out”) and Jodie Turner-Smith, both in fact British actors. Not all the black characters that they meet are honourable and not all the white policemen that they encounter are prejudiced, but anyone in the film who has seen the viral video of the opening incident mythologises it as avenging angels on the run from injustice or callous cop-killers evading what they deserve.

This is the best movie about the black condition that I’ve seen since “Detroit” but, whereas that film was about one true-life historic incident, this one is a fictional representation of the true and very contemporary American debate about white policemen routinely killing innocent, unarmed, and often young black men. 

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Sajid Javid has resigned as Chancellor rather than sack his Special Advisers, but who are Special Advisers?

February 13th, 2020 by Roger Darlington

Special Advisers – or SpAds as they known in political circles – are a small number of political advisers appointed by each Secretary of State to serve that Cabinet Minister only for the duration of that minister being in the office.

Some have specialist knowledge of the subject matter of the Government Department headed by their boss, while others have more general acumen in politics and communications. They are supporters of the political party in government and are loyal to the Secretary of State who appointed them – which is why Javid rightly refused to dismiss his own advisers and work with advisers appointed by No. 10.

Special Advisers are usually most effective when they are low profile and do not cause problems in public for their Secretary of State. Dominc Cummings is clearly out of the mould and is behind the current shock resignation of Javid.

I was a Special Adviser in two Departments in the Wilson/Callaghan Governments, while both my son and my daughter-in-law each served in two Departments in the Blair/Brown Governments – all these Departments being different.

The definitive history of Special Advisers was written by Andrew Blick and published as “People Who Live In The Dark”. You can read my review of this work here.

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Why has it taken so long for the UK to move on regulation of the Internet?

February 13th, 2020 by Roger Darlington

For six years (2000-2005), I was the first independent Chair of the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), an industry-funded body which combats illegal content, primarily child abuse images, online. We had significant success, certainly in eliminating the hosting of child abuse images in the UK.

However, I was concerned that there was other material online which, while not actually illegal, was highly problematic. But I could not get the industry or the government to address such material because they found the problem too controversial and too difficult.

Therefore I am pleased to see the news that the Government now intends to give the communications regulator Ofcom – on whose Consumer Panel I sat for eight and half years (2004-2012) – new responsibility for regulating harmful content on the Net. There are many issues of principle and practice to address in this initiative but I feel that it is a significant move in the right direction.

However, why has it taken 20 years to step up to the plate on this? Once I was free of the constraints of being IWF Chair, I was able to address this issue publicly and made a number of speeches (including one at Ofcom) and a number of submissions (including one to the Government’s Communications Review).

The detail of what I suggested has been overtaken by events – especially the huge growth in user-generated content online – but the key principles of my approach – that the Net needs some further regulation and that the key issue should be harmful content – have now been taken up by the Government and will eventually be exercised by Ofcom.

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How many people have been into space?

February 12th, 2020 by Roger Darlington

I was born in 1948, so I was a teenager when the so-called Space Race between the USSR and the USA was at its height. It seemed that, every few months, there was a new first: the first satellite in space, the first dog in space, the first man in space, the first woman in space, the first space walk, the first manned landing on the moon. It was all so exciting. These days, few people seem to bother about space exploration.

But I was thinking recently: how many people have now been into space? According to Wikipedia (which has a list of them all), using the FAI criterion, as of 4 December 2019, a total of 565 people from 41 countries have gone into space. Of the 565, three people completed a sub-orbital flight, 562 people reached Earth orbit, 24 travelled beyond low Earth orbit,  and 12 walked on the moon.

Although the first woman flew into space in 1963 (two years after the first man), it would not be until almost 20 years later (1982) that another flew. Even today, the total number of women who have been into space is only 65.

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A review of the Academy Award-winning film “Parasite”

February 10th, 2020 by Roger Darlington

I saw this South Korean work just hours before it won four Academy Awards making it the first non-English language film to win Best Picture in the 92 years of the Oscars. Impressive though “Parasite” is, I’m not sure that it’s quite that good. I would probably have made different choices for Best Picture (“Joker”), Best Director (Sam Mendes) and Best International Film (“Pain And Glory”), but I would certainly agree with the award for Best Original Screenplay.

Writer and director Bong Joon-ho has produced a startingly original and genre-mixing work that starts as an insightful and blistering social satire and then switches dramatically – a bit like the famous “Psycho” – into something much more macabre. There is humour, there is tension, sometimes at the same time. The dialogue is almost continuous so, unless you’re fluent in Korean, I suggest you sit near the screen. More than this, it’s hard to describe without revealing spoilers – which I never do. 

Set in Seoul, we meet two very different families: the four Kims, who are desparately poor but oddly unified, and the four Parks (plus their housekeeper), who are outrageously rich but deeply fractured. The two families become progressively more intersecting through a series of deceptions but, just when you think the scamming is complete, more revelations crash into the narrative, building to an unexpected finale. None of the characters totally attract our affection or our displeasure and the viewer can’t help caring in some way for all of them. 

Ultimately the work can be seen as not just a critique of class but of the capitalist system that obscenely divides and dehumanises us.

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Here’s a wonderful toolkit for all teachers who want to inspire their students

February 10th, 2020 by Roger Darlington

“Values And Visions” is a book written to engage students between 8-16 years old and to empower the teachers of such students with a conceptual framework and no less than 130 practical exercises. This work of over 300 pages looks, feels, and reads like no other book you will have ever seen in a classroom:

  • size A4 and ring-bound so that one can open out any part with ease
  • full of colour pictures, diagrams, quotes and different styles of text
  • shiny, heavy-duty pages that are a joy to hold and likely to last with use
  • elegantly-organised material with beautiful and inspirational language

The conceptual framework – what the authors call the Dynamic Learning Cycle – consists of three stages: identification of the values that colour our experience, tools of reflection that enable us to respond to this experience, and purpose and action to flow from this reflection.

Eight tools of reflection are offered, each with lots of incredibly useful exercises:

  • stillness  which is taking the time and space to quietly reflect
  • listening which involves attention, respect and empathy for others
  • story which uses short narratives to engage and illuminate  
  • encounter which examines how we relate to others and the world
  • celebration & joy which embraces gratitude and enthusiasm for life
  • grieving and letting go which requires a recognition of suffering and loss
  • visioning which is imagining a better future for our self or community
  • journalling which is a written exploration of our thoughts and feelings

There might have been a time when I was sceptical about some of these concepts and tools but then I met the authors, Georgeanne Lamont and Sally Burns, and worked with them on courses. I saw the hugely beneficial impacts of this imaginative thinking and rich array of engaging exercises, so I know that any teacher and any student would find “Values And Visions” quite truly transformational. 

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Now that Brexit is ‘done’, what happens next?

February 7th, 2020 by Roger Darlington

A week ago, the United Kingdom left the European Union after membership of 47 years. In a practical sense, nothing changed because we now have a transition period but, in an emotional sense, everything changed because – depending on your point of view – either we took back or control or (my view) we stupidly cut ourself off from a huge market and a family of nations.

In the hours running up to Brexit, I was at the London School of Economics for a panel session on Brexit involving five expert commentators. A major theme of the evening was that Brexit is far from ‘done’; this is just the beginning.

The Government has talked about this being “an implementation period” but, as one panellist put it, “There is absolutely nothing to implement”. The theory is that we now have a year to negotiate the details of our future relationship with the EU , mainly trade but lots of other issues ranging from fisheries to security.

In reality, all of this month will be involved in the two parties determining their respective negotiating positions and negotiations themselves will not begin until the start of March. The transition period concludes at the end of December, but any deal has to be approved by 32 EU national and regional parliaments which means that any agreement will need to be available by September.

That means that, in truth, there will be a mere seven months to negotiate any agreement. Of course, in a rational world, there is an option of extending the transition period by up to two years, but the Government has ruled this out and, if it was to change its mind, it would have to do this as early as July.

The Government appears to favour something like the EU agreement with Canada. But a Canada-type deal is not on offer from the EU and it does not cover many areas such as energy and financial services. Another option mooted by the Government is a so-called Australia-type deal. But there is no such deal since negotiations between the EU and Oz are still in progress.

If there is no deal, the theory is that we fall back on the terms provided by the World Trade Organisation, but these are minimalist terms and would not cover major sectors such as energy and aviation.

Ivan Rogers, a former UK Permanent Representative to the EU, said “There’s big trouble ahead” and forecast “a major crisis in late 2020”. My guess is that, at the very last moment, a deal will be done but it will be what Rogers called “a skinny deal” leaving a mass of detail still to be sorted out.

Brexit is far from ‘done’. This is going to run and run and run.

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A review of “The Secret Commonwealth” by Philip Pullman

February 5th, 2020 by Roger Darlington

This is the second part of the trilogy “The Book Of Dust”, following the original trilogy of “His Dark Materials”. This novel is a sequel to the first three, set some 10 years after them and therefore some 20 years after “La Belle Sauvage” which was the first part of “The Book Of Dust”. The whole of the narrative is set in the same universe as “La Belle Sauvage” which, in the words of “Northern Lights”, is like our own universe “but different in many ways”. 

We already knew from the first trilogy that there were people (witches) and places (the world of the dead) when humans and their daemons could be separated, but the shocking revelation of this novel is that Lyra Belacqua/Silvertongue (now a 20 year old Oxford University student) and her pine-marten daemon Pantalaimon are not just separated but estranged, so that they are apart both physically and temperamentally. Even more troubling, we learn that there is trouble in the Far East with men from the mountains (aka The Brotherhood of This Holy Purpose) attacking both a research institute and rose growers because apparently a type of rose oil has some special characteristics in some way connected with the powerful instrument the alethiometer and the strange phenomenon of Dust.

This means that much of the narrative is a constant switching between journeys on the way out to this Far East by Lyra herself, her separated daemaon Pan, and the resouceful Malcolm Polstead (who as a boy rescued Lyra in “La Belle Sauvage” and is now an Oxford scholar). At the same time, they are being tracked by a part of the Magisterium known as the Consistorial Court of Discipline which has an althiometer and someone who can read it – as can Lyra – with the new method (Olivier Bonneville, son the the man who tried to kidnap Lyra some 20 years earlier).

Meanwhile what is the secret commonwealth of the title? We are told little, but advised that it is a “world of half-seen things and half-heard whispers” including “fairies, spirits, hauntings, things of the night”. And we learn no more about Dust itself. As Lyra asks herself: “And Dust? Where did that come in? Was it a metaphor? Was it part of the secret commonwealth?” We are told that” “We need to imagine as well as measure”.

This immensely readable work of some 800 pages finishes with nothing resolved, so that the reader can barely wait for the third and final element in “The Book Of Dust” when hopefully all our questions will be answered.

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American politics in (in)action

February 4th, 2020 by Roger Darlington

  • They can’t impeach a president who is as guilty as hell.
  • They can’t count caucus votes in one of the least populous states in the union.

If you want to know more about the American political system, check out my guide.

But we Brits can’t be smug.

  • We couldn’t hold a clean referendum on the most important constitutional question of our lives.
  • It took us three and a half years to implement this deeply flawed decision.

If you want to know more about the British political system, check out my guide.

Two cheers for democracy!

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