‘State of Play’, 15 Years On

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I recently watched the whole of the 2003 BBC drama series State of Play – not the US film of the same title; the television original.  I’m a fan of thrillers with twists and turns, so it suited me down to the ground and the plotlines have held up well.  What surprised me is how many changes there have been in daily life over the last 15 years.  Here’s what I spotted.

  • Smoking – characters smoke in the office, in hotels, in bars, in cars. And they don’t ask if anyone minds when they smoke in someone’s home.
  • What a phone can do – it’s an obvious one, but phones were for calls and texts. They weren’t for email, taking photos (separate cameras were used for that), maps or any of the other things we use them for now.  WhatsApp wasn’t a twinkle in a cyber eye.
  • Paper – hard copy still ruled and there’s paper everywhere. None of the characters walks around with a laptop or an iPad; they have (paper) notebooks.
  • Faxes – remember those? They’re used a lot in State of Play with one plot development turning on an anonymous fax sent from a fax and photocopying bureau.
  • Cars, driving and parking – people drive to work. That might be because they work on a newspaper and need to travel, but I’m not sure the same characters would be shown as drivers if State of Play were being made in London today.  I’d expect to see more cyclists.  There also appear to be no residents parking or other parking restrictions in the streets of north London.
  • Taxis – it’s all black cabs and they’re hailed in the street. There are no taxi apps.  There are no apps.
  • CDs – music was still on CDs and one of the characters works in a CD store. It’s a while since I’ve seen one of those on the high street.
  • Videos – video cassettes appear in the storyline and on shelves in characters’ rooms. 2003 was before mainstream use of DVDs and it’s certainly before online streaming.  A video cassette that’s relevant to the storyline shows a recording of a party that would now be taken on a phone.
  • Suits and ties – there’s a greater prevalence of suits and ties than I’d expect to see now, even amongst politicians who still tend to wear them more than most (politicians being a key constituency amongst the characters).
  • Rucksacks – these were the days of briefcases and the occasional bag over the shoulder.
  • Newspapers – shots on tube trains show characters reading physical newspapers that they’ve paid for, not free newspapers, and there are no iPads to access a news website.

And this was only 15 years ago…

Brexit and 20:20 Vision

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A lot of the articles at the end of 2017 asked what the UK’s role should be following Brexit.  Some see Brexit as the next stage in the UK’s loss of international influence; others see scope for a new role, resetting relationships with the US, other European countries/the EU and countries further afield.  There have been suggestions about the role the Foreign & Commonwealth Office can play in representing the UK’s interests overseas and how the arts, universities and even football can be key components of a soft-power toolkit.

These are all outward-looking initiatives.  How the UK presents itself to the world and keeps and deepens its friendships and influence will be important following Brexit.  But there also needs to be a clear vision of what post-Brexit UK will be like for the people who live here.

That clear vision is something the UK must decide for itself; in other words, it’s an internal matter.  I’m not encouraging excessive navel-gazing here.  It’s rather that the UK needs to decide what type of country it wants to be – for its citizens, not just in what’s presented to the rest of the world.  That approach – that vision – should be one a majority of citizens can sign up to and shouldn’t offend minorities to a point one or more will seek to overthrow it by constitutional or other means.

Secondly, it’s pretty much inevitable that there will be conflicting messages to the rest of the world unless there’s a broad consensus within the UK about what the country stands for after Brexit.  The current government doesn’t always appear to be singing from the same song sheet on the subject so it’s safe to assume that a miscellany of football teams, universities, schools and businesses of all types and sizes will have wildly different messages and approaches rather than something that’s recognisably from the UK.

Thirdly (and going back to the topic of the previous post), there needs to be a narrative to ‘sell’ whatever Brexit deal is reached to UK citizens.  That requires a narrative and you can’t put together a coherent narrative without a vision – in this case, of what life will be like after Brexit.

Part of the difficulty in setting that vision is that none of the political parties seems to have a robust vision that encompasses the whole of the UK; it’s arguable that some of them aren’t clear about what they stand for themselves.  I don’t have a soundbite vision to hand, but I’d say it should:

  • Offer something for everyone, something that’s relevant to them and that they can relate to;
  • Set out the values that will be our post-Brexit touchstones, the ones we’ll keep coming back to;
  • Be recognisable, not too novel or gimmicky;
  • Provide opportunities to everyone and to the country; and
  • Show how these will underpin how we deal with the rest of the world.

These are more inward-looking than outward-looking and that’s deliberate.  Carrying the people of the UK through the Brexit process together is more important than – and is critical to – how we present ourselves to the outside world.

Brexit and the Power of a Narrative

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It’s a while since I’ve published any posts because I haven’t felt that there’s anything I particularly wanted to say.  But I’ve been gathering thoughts over the last few weeks and they’ll be the subject of a series of posts of which this is the first.  It’s about the importance of having a narrative.

Whenever you need to communicate a message – whether that’s in writing or orally – tell people a story.  I don’t mean a fake-news, fairy tale kind of story.  Give your audience – the reader or the listener – a storyline that they can follow.  Journalists do this and the best public speakers do too:  think of the speeches of Winston Churchill and Nelson Mandela.  There’s a path for the audience to follow, a vehicle for a message that goes beyond soundbites.

The same principles apply to a lot of what we do.  At an interview, you can answer questions, but it’s so much more compelling if you have a narrative about yourself, what you do, your values and how you work that you can set out over the course of the interview.  If you need to negotiate (whether with another member of the family, at work or in other aspects of daily life), an argument is more convincing if you place it in the context of a narrative.  A strong narrative will give you a reference point to come back to if you lose your way and help you identify the points you want – proactively – to make.

So, what’s the narrative on how the UK will look after Brexit?  I’ve been searching for one and there’s so little sign of anything resembling a narrative that I’ve concluded it doesn’t exist.  A deal was struck between the UK and the EU in December, light on detail and with plenty kicked further down the road, but the UK government now needs to articulate what it wants from the next stage of the negotiations.

Without a narrative, it will be difficult – if not impossible – to settle the UK’s external relationships on an appropriate footing and in an appropriate manner.  But, even more importantly, it will be difficult to carry the country and show the people of the UK what life beyond Brexit will look like and what it will consist of.

A narrative is crucial, but there can’t be a narrative without a vision.  In the case of Brexit, there needs to be a vision for the type of country the UK will be and how it will interact with EU countries and other nations and a narrative to communicate that vision convincingly.  Next week, I’ll look at what a vision might involve.

Nuclear proliferation and unpredictable behaviour

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I’ve been following the analysis and commentary in the press this year about North Korea’s development of nuclear programme.  I haven’t followed it obsessively; it’s been more of a watching brief.  As the rhetoric has escalated over the last few days, I’ve had a growing sense of unease, put in context by an essay by Tony Judt.

The essay is Why the Cold War Worked (details at the end of this post).  Having seen the title, I was expecting to find reference to nuclear weapons early in the piece, but they don’t get a mention until the penultimate paragraph – as one of the new elements that resulted in the Cold War being different from anything that had happened in Europe before 1945.  Politicians couldn’t look to pre-War models and solutions to problems because there was now the potential to cause extensive destruction and immense loss of life so quickly and with a single missile.

Tony Judt notes that it took politicians, including US policy makers, many years to learn that nuclear weapons were strikingly unhelpful as instruments of statecraft.  In contrast to spears, they really were only good for sitting on.  He goes on to say (and this is the bit where I sat up and read it again):

Nonetheless, as a deterrent device a nuclear arsenal has its uses – but only if both you and your opponent could be convinced that it might, ultimately, be deployed.

Behaviour of the five nuclear-weapon states has, generally, been regarded as predictable, particularly since the end of the Cold War.  But when another country acquires nuclear weapons or carries out nuclear tests – Pakistan and India in the past; North Korea more recently – there’s a concern that the new member of the club won’t understand that these weapons aren’t to be used.

So, what happens if a country convinces others that its nuclear weapons capability might, one day, be deployed?  What impact does that have on the balance of power and statecraft – and on public rhetoric?  Is that country bluffing?  Does having nuclear-arms capability make that country more confident about using – and more likely to use – non-nuclear weapons?

And what if the behaviour of one of the acknowledged nuclear-weapon states becomes more unpredictable – perhaps through an unpredictable leader being in power?  Tony Judt’s essay provides insights, but little comfort.

 

Why the Cold War Worked appears in When the Facts Change by Tony Judt.  It’s a review of We Now Know:  Rethinking Cold War History by John Lewis Gaddis and The Conninform:  Minutes of the Three Conferences 1947/1948/1949, edited by Giuliano Procacci.  It first appeared in The New York Review of Books in October 1997.

 

FAROE ISLANDS: A VISITOR’S GUIDE

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I haven’t done a travel guide before, but I visited the Faroe Islands recently and the reading material didn’t quite prepare me for the islands.  So, here’s my take on visiting.

First, they are well worth a visit, but go soon.  There’s debate about how to benefit from tourism whilst protecting the islands.  The residents of Mykines – the western-most island, home to a vast colony of puffins – are seeing the detrimental impact of even the current limited tourism on paths and grazing land and nervous puffins.  Mind, I’d be a pretty nervous puffin if humans chased me and didn’t keep their distance.

If you can afford it, hire a car.  You can travel to most communities by bus, but you’re tied to the timetable and you’ll miss the joy of the Buttercup routes, roads with particularly beautiful scenery.

I stayed at various places across the islands, moving from west to east.  If you plan to do that, Airbnb is pretty essential, as there simply aren’t hotels.  Another option (and I didn’t realise how feasible this would be) is to have a base in the middle of the islands.  From there, you’ll be able to reach all but the southern islands.

It’s unlikely you’ll be able to avoid driving through the tunnels that link some of the islands and go through the mountains.  There are two types of these:  tunnels that are lit, with a lane for traffic in each direction; tunnels that aren’t lit, that are hewn out of the rock to form a single lane, that have passing points at the most irregular of intervals and have a ditch (often with water in it) each side of the paved roadway.  There are more of the latter than the former.  If, like me, you live in a town and reversing is limited to parallel parking, go into training!  Locals with right of way hurtle down tunnels and you have to get out of their way.  It’s very easy to misjudge the speed of the car coming towards you and/or distance to the next passing place.  I only had to reverse once, but it left mental scars.

Now, food.  Don’t be deceived by the articles that have appeared in the press over the last few months:  Faroese cuisine is confined to a few, very specific restaurants.  Outside that elite group, I found the food adequate, but a little like food in the UK pre-rocket, pre-avocado – even pre-broccoli.  However, grab any opportunity to eat langoustines, which melt in the mouth.  Getting a table in restaurants is hard, but not because they’re full.  I saw patrons tell people their restaurant is full, then leave several tables empty.  I’m semi-speculating here, but I think it’s about how busy they’ve decided they want to be, although exceptions seemed to be made for locals.  Ask a hotel receptionist to book a table for you – and that’s essential if you’re travelling alone, as the main group of well-known restaurants don’t have the facility for one person to book a table online; if you try, every day and time will be unavailable.  I was told that only the receptionists at the main hotels in the same group have the facility to override the system and make the booking.

Finally, paying for it.  I read that the islands are a cash society, but I only saw one shop that insisted on cash.  Credit cards are accepted in most places.

These are all practical points and don’t let them put you off.  The scenery is stunning, the air is clear and you’ll experience six types of weather in a day.  I saw a couple of mosquitoes in Klaksvik, but otherwise, it was a mozzie-free zone.  Don’t miss the ferry as a roundtrip from Hvannasund to the eastern-most islands of Fugloy and Svinoy – a bargain, but stay on deck if you get sea-sick!  And do make the trip to Mykines, but please don’t chase the puffins!

If you’d like any more tips, let me know – happy to help.

 

The Tourism of War

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In the course of recent trips, I’ve been to Berlin and Sarajevo and it’s struck me that war can become a tourist attraction.

Bosnia & Herzegovina is outside the EU.  It has a stubbornly high unemployment rate and the country’s infrastructure still hasn’t been fully rebuilt since the war of the 1990s.  It might not seem an obvious victim of the financial crash, but I spoke to a man who’d lost his job at the Stock Exchange in 2010; his wife lost her job two days later.  Tourism is one of the few growth industries, with people working in hotels, as guides, drivers and so forth.

Mention Bosnia and people think ‘war’.  Tours in Sarajevo are to the Tunnel Museum – the remains of the tunnel that ran under the airport, providing a vital communication and supply link to the besieged city.  There are trips to the burnt remains of the 1984 Winter Olympic bobsleigh track and to see the bullet holes in the gravestones at the Jewish cemetery.  A little further afield, there’s the Winter Olympic ski jump site, the 70m and 90m hills clear on the hillside, with the letters ‘UN’ marked in white on the roof of the former judges’ hut; this was a demilitarised zone during the war.

And Sarajevo isn’t the only example.  Few people go to Berlin just to see the Wall and Checkpoint Charlie, but most people would expect to see the Wall at some point and have a sense of which side of it they are on.  It’s a key part of a trip to Berlin.  There’s an interest in what survived World War II and the styles of buildings from the Cold War period.  It didn’t appeal to me, but there’s a spy museum about the Stasi.

Similarly, a visit to Auschwitz might not be the main reason to go to Krakow, but many return moved, saddened and appalled – and glad they made the visit.  First World War battlefields, trenches and cemeteries; Ground Zero in New York; Robben Island; any number of places in the Middle East … the list goes on.

People want to see where epic events occurred and translate the news-story to something more immediate and more personal.  We want to hear stories of hardship, but also of heroism.  Bravery is acknowledged and respects are paid.  And we want to see this as history.  Almost by definition, tourists won’t be where a war’s raging, but we want to see that the bad times are over, that there’s a happy ending.

War shouldn’t define a country and what it has to offer.  By the time I left Sarajevo, I wanted to see the rest of the country – one of the last remaining primeval forests in Europe; the fascinating collisions of cultures; fortresses; monasteries; music; art.  Things that have nothing to do with the War.

SAFETY AND DANGER: A HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE

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There are a number of posts I could write about the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Manchester and London.  How the best way of retaining your sanity is to avoid television, news websites, the radio and social media, once you’ve got the basic information.  How you need to remember how many people die of diseases and medical conditions that could be treated or avoided if more were spent on research and health and social care.  How it’s essential to keep a sense of proportion.  And how desperately tragic it is for all those affected – the victims and their families and friends; witnesses; the emergency service personnel.

But as I set off for Prague at the end of last week, it occurred to me that a trip to Czechoslovakia would have held more than a frisson of danger 30 years ago.  And now, many consider it safer than London.

I started to work out where else was considered to be off-limits during the 1980s.  Large parts of Central and South America ticked the box, as did parts of New York City.  (I remember my aunt making me promise not to take the subway when I visited in 1991 and I walked so much that I returned home an inch shorter.)  Parts of Yugoslavia and Bulgaria were mainstream holiday destinations for Western Europeans in the 1980s, but I don’t recall anyone going to Romania or Hungary.

Going back a little further, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos were places to steer clear of in the 1970s, but they’re a mainstay of the averagely adventurous traveller’s bucket list now.  China, the same.

Depending on the decade, various parts of Africa have been worth avoiding and some still are.  Egypt is potentially combustible, but was safe enough ten years ago.  The Middle East has been volatile for most of my lifetime, with short intervals when trips have been perfectly feasible.

Many countries and regions go through periods of comparative violence and peace.  Paris is safer now than during the Second World War and during The Terror at the end of the eighteenth century.  The UK is safer than Northern Ireland was during the Troubles of the 1960s, 70s and 80s.  Violence and danger ebb and flow across the globe and over time, even though we want to live in a peaceful world.

I know I’ll struggle to remember that when there’s another attack in the UK, but I will try to do so and I’ll also pray for peace.