News and curiosities

February 28, 2009
Obama, my neocon darling

Obama's inauguration crackled with wonderful atmosphere, exciting balls, splendid outfits—and an inaugural speech that could have been penned by a neoconservative, writes Martin Walker. Not wishing to miss out on the fun, Washington's right wingers held numerous consolation parties. At one, ex-Bush "axis of evil" speechwriter David Frum clinked glasses with talkshow host Laura Ingraham, Byron York of the National Review and "prince of darkness" Richard Perle. All were stunned that Obama pushed so many of their buttons, in a speech that promised to defeat "far flung networks of hatred and violence" while promising not to "apologise for our way of life." Frum even seemed jealous that he hadn't come up with it himself, although his last employer may have shown insufficient brio in delivery.

The bitter, boozing conservatives were comfortably outshone, though, by the night's hottest party: the Ibiza nightclub's "DC is the new LA" gig, featuring Shakira, Courteney Cox, Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, P Diddy and Cher. The latter confided that, although she had come all the way to Washington, the extreme cold had forced her to watch proceedings from her hotel room. Warming was much on Obama's mind too, as he kicked off his speech with a line noting that "each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy… threaten our planet." A reflection that Shakira, Cher et al might mull over as they return west, doubtless aboard one of the record 1,000 or so private jets that flew VIPs into town. Poor Bush managed only 320 in 2004. The times, they are a changin'.

Brit parade

Britons are the world's biggest per-capita consumers of media, so you'd expect our music industry to suffer particular agonies as consumers cut back during hard times. In fact, our musical appetites are rising. Britain is currently outperforming every other major music market in the world. Sales are down just 4 per cent last year (as opposed to 15-20 per cent elsewhere) and, thanks to a booming digital market, 2008 was a record year for British singles. But trust the government to provide a black cloud: music fans think new noise limitation laws could soon doom the British live music scene. More worryingly, Defra has recently appointed a team of noise experts, including an "acoustic consultant," to listen out for sounds harming "human health, flora, fauna and the built environment." Gig goers beware: you may be next.

The Keynes Klub

Adam Smith has an institute and Joseph Rowntree a foundation, while American cold war politician Henry "scoop" Jackson and Roman general Quintus Fabius Maximus have a society apiece. No surprise, then, that the intellectual rehabilitation of the theories that bear his name will soon see economist John Maynard Keynes catapulted into this lofty club.

Rather than simply paying homage to the great man, however, the new Keynes Society plans to address a range of pressing issues, beginning with a forum to discuss the April meeting of the G20. Future meetings may wish to consider some of his more inspired wheezes, including increasing demand by "pulling down most of south London from Westminster to Greenwich," and the importance of increased champagne consumption prior to death. Former BP economist Nick Butler, the brains behind the outfit, envisages a nimble network of thinkers rather than a stolid organisation. It is an appropriate model. Keynes would surely not burden his followers with the binding manifestos and inflexible statements of purpose that hamper other, lesser think tanks. If the facts change, much better to have freedom to change your opinions too.

Jewish doves

Few American Jewish leaders opposed Israel's actions in Palestine, writes Antony Lerman, but some did—including the new "pro-Israel, pro-peace" lobby group J-Street. The group, named in honour of DC's famous "K Street" lobbyists, has "grown to threaten Aipac as the most influential voice of American pro-Israel Jewry," according to journalist Alexander Zaitchik.

Its head, Jeremy Ben-Ami, issued a strident ceasefire statement after the first skirmish in Gaza, prompting Rabbi Eric Yoffie, a rival from the Jewish peace camp, to issue a stinging rebuke to the J-Streeters for their "utter lack of empathy for Israel's predicament." J-Street insiders admit to disquiet over the backlash, but report neither defections nor evidence that the kerfuffle has frightened off Obama's people, as yet.

Newspaper chase

With credit getting ever crunchier, 2009 is fast becoming a year of desperate innovation among the cash-strapped media. In Britain, the Telegraph has opted to throw a few subeditors on the barbie, outsourcing parts of its production to cheaper climes in Australia. In the US, a raft of venerable principles has been gently cut adrift as giants like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal have started to sell advertising on their front pages. The Washington Post, meanwhile, is rumoured to be on the verge of shedding such fripperies as a books section. It isn't all doom and gloom, though. Back in London at the Evening Standard, new owner Alexander Lebedev has announced a still more radical strategy for the title he bought for a nominal £1: he will be bringing the paper "upmarket."

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Contamination of the Mili-brand

The return of Ken "Jurassic" Clarke to the Conservative frontbench has brought political dinosaur fever to Westminster. But even his recovery from extinction can't match the reversal of fortunes within one family: the Milibands. Since appearing as Prospect's cover star last October, poor David has barely caught a break, enduring a series of public photo-mishaps involving bananas, and, most recently, an Indian mud hut. Kid brother Ed, meanwhile, continues to rise unchecked, having brazenly disguised political timidity as bravery by backing Heathrow's third runway. The rise of this "Milibenn" tendency—comprising Ed and his fellow "green" airport fan Hilary Benn—nicely positions Miliband Jnr as Brown's successor when the inevitable happens. One well-placed wag noted to Prospect that Miliband Jnr could only have made one smarter step in his attempt to leapfrog Johnson, Harman, Balls and his flailing elder sibling in the fight for succession: resignation.

Naipaul appalls

There's nothing better than a literary spat to warm up the winter months—and the normally placid letters page of the New York Review of Books hosted an especially sizzling one this January. Back in November, Ian Buruma favourably reviewed Patrick French's unsparing biography of VS Naipaul for the NYRB, noting in passing that one Paul Theroux had written a "rather bitter memoir" of Naipaul, "his former friend and idol." Enter Theroux, with a lengthy response to Buruma excoriating his "false and fatuous" portrayal of French's book as a "confessional biography." Buruma's reply? "Paul Theroux merely sounds bilious… The demolition of an idol by a disillusioned worshipper is never an edifying sight, and in the case of an aging writer a trifle undignified too." We eagerly await round two in February.

An Oxford poetess

This is the year of not one but two august literary appointments: both the Oxford professorship of poetry and the poet laureateship. Between them, the posts have existed for almost 700 years—but neither has ever been held by a woman. Could this be about to change? Prospect hears whispers that none other than Charles Darwin's great-great-granddaughter, the poet Ruth Padel, is considering campaigning for the Oxford job (which is chosen by election) on the principle that it's about time a woman did it. Such ambition is surely to be applauded. And while we're at it, why not the laureateship too? The department for culture, media and sport, which makes the appointment, is considering its options. Who could be more timely in 2009 than a Darwin?

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Woolies—Britain's least likely saviour

Might the death of Woolworths save Britain's high streets from the twin menaces of recession and uniformity? Art Space & Nature, an avant-garde Scottish art collective, think it just might, and have bold plans to brighten up Cumbernauld's famously monstrous concrete town centre, by taking over at least one of Woolie's 815 shuttered outlets. Neville Rae, an artist from the group, says a dozen students will exhibit in various abandoned shops, hoping to replace traditional high street bargains with "work responding to the social, political and aesthetic history of modernist new town planning"—a potentially more useful, if less comprehensible, public service than back-to-school specials and pic 'n'mix.

The plucky artists face stiff competition for these high street carcasses, however, from the head of the quango the Institute of Community Cohesion. Ted Cantle, iCoCo's head, would quickly turf out anyone found loitering with a paintbrush. His plan is to convert the empty Woolies into shiny new indoor markets, housing anyone from food retailers to farmers—who "presently have to contend with all weathers on windswept car parks" when selling their wares. Cantle wants the premises to be "available to local communities, rather than filled by the standard multinational brands." Both Cantle and Rae had better hope artistic mega-brand Damien Hirst doesn't get in on the act—although a Woolworths sign sliced up in a vat of formaldehyde might look rather jolly.