5 things about this week (9 August 2018)

by Stephen Tall on August 9, 2018

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What is there left to say about Brexit? Do I spend the next seven months wailing against this catastrophically stupid decision the ‘will of the people’? Half of me thinks I should, if only for posterity. Because I do want my (grand-)children one day to know that lots of us did foresee the long decline just over half the voters chose to condemn this country to.

That said, there is something perfectly British, or at any rate English, about Brexit. I’m loathe to suggest there’s anything as simple as a national psyche — we contain multitudes — but in voting as we did we have typically demonstrated our simultaneous superiority and inferiority complexes. (The two are, of course, inter-related.)

Our superiority is asserted through Theresa May’s vacuous “no deal is better than a bad deal” mantra; as if the damage from a no-deal Brexit will be fairly shared because one of us is surely roughly equivalent to 27 of them. We appear to assume the rest of Europe will eventually cave in out of a mixture of their own self-interest (the infamous German car-makers who Brexiters guaranteed us would ensure Britain got a great deal) and being good sports (negotiation means give and take, we reason, while discounting the minor downside for the rest of the EU that special treatment for the UK would likely destabilise a political system they still quite like).

Our inferiority is betrayed by the growing realisation that Brexit’s not going awfully well and there’s no easy way to see how it will go better. For all that the Chequers deal was a baby-step in the right direction, it exposed the reality of what Brexit means: Britain needs the EU more than the EU needs Britain. We either maintain close relations with the EU (which means sacrificing our hard-won opt-outs and rebates and instead becoming a paying member of a club with no say in making the rules); or sever our current trading alliance to ‘take back control’ of our borders and suffer a massive economic hit. Either way, we’ll be diminished.

It seems entirely apt that this summer’s anthem has been the reprise of that ultimate British hymn of ironic self-deprecation, Three Lions: “Everyone seems to know the score / They’ve seen it all before / They just know / They’re so sure / That England’s gonna throw it away / Gonna blow it away”.

**

The last two years of hurt have never stopped Boris dreaming.

His unplanned resignation, forced by David “the exact same benefits” Davis’s exit, has done him no harm among Conservative members if this recent survey‘s to be believed.

And it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that his unpleasantly provocative labelling of niqab-wearing Muslim women as “letter boxes” and “bank robbers” is anything other than a deliberate dog-whistle to a certain type of Leave voter.

(I don’t think the world needs another white male’s view on the niqab, so these are the two tweets on the topic I’ve seen which best capture my thoughts:

  • Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: “I, a progressive Muslim, do not care for veils but totally mistrust Boris Johnson. Tough call. Spent the last many hours explaining my complicated position. And realized this political conman has now incapacitated reformists like myself.”
  • Maajid Nawaz: “This is the uniform of medieval patriarchal tyranny. It victim-blames women for their beauty. Where this is enforced it symbolises violent mysogyny. I’m not advocating banning this monstrosity but I refuse to defend it. It deserves to be ridiculed. Not the women inside it.”)
  • Two unrelated but coterminous things strike me. First, that Boris Johnson has recently met with alt-right nationalist Steve Bannon.

    And, secondly, that a poll this week has shown that the most fertile ground for a new political party is not in the progressive centre, but among Leaver voters who feel none of the parties are currently tough enough on crime or immigrants.

    Please, don’t have nightmares.

    **

    When is it okay to give up on a book? I’m not asking for a friend, I’m afraid.

    This week I attempted Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders’ 2017 Booker Prize-winning novel. I can see why it’s been critically acclaimed, and I can’t deny that it’s an impressive achievement. But, ultimately, life is too short to persist with books you’re not enjoying and I’m afraid I found myself not really caring enough about what happened on the next page. I felt similarly about Salman Rushdie’s Midnight Children. But I know some people are obsessive-completists, who cannot not finish a book once started.

    On the flip-side I also don’t re-read novels, even my favourites. My actuarial estimate of the number of books I’ll read before I die is 975 (assuming 25 a year and that I live to be 80). On one level, that sounds a lot. But given c.180,000 books are published each year in the UK alone, that 975 represents just 0.01% of what’s yet to be published; let alone the estimated 130,000,000 books already published.

    Where one book closes, another one opens.

    **

    I love the start of the football season. It’s that one moment of equipoise — every team is level on null points — when no-one can be quite sure what will happen. Sure, Man City look nailed on as champions again, but it’s been a decade since anyone retained the premiership trophy. Liverpool will be breathing down their necks, too. Will Jose Mourinho’s Man United fall victim to his third-season syndrome? Can Spurs survive their players’ World Cup hangover? Will new managers at Chelsea and Arsenal lift them into top 4 contention? As for my team Everton, my hopes are pretty low-key after a disastrous pre-season when we lost out last five games. I suspect we’ll end up anywhere between mid-table respectability and a relegation battle.

    The start of the season also fuels my inner nerd: I enjoy playing fantasy football league (and still run LibDemVoice’s mini-league). Like all the best games, the concept is simple: pick a squad of 15 for a fixed budget, with their performances converted into points: the ‘manager’ with the most points come next May wins. Like all the best games, there’s a whole lot more strategy to it than that… Is the best system 3-4-3 or 3-5-2? Should you rotate goalkeepers according to home advantage, or choose a set-and-forget premium player? How do you maximise the number of set-piece players in your team? When is it best to play which ‘chips’? When should you ‘wildcard’? Etc, etc.

    It’s 25 years since the first real mass-market fantasy football league game was launched by the Daily Telegraph (many others soon followed). Surprisingly, despite the huge global popularity of the game, no individual has made a fortune out of it. Its British populiser, David Wainstein, is commendably phlegmatic about that, as the FT documents here:

    … given the opportunities to scale the business, and the fact that the money was flowing in, why was Wainstein not more successful? “We had a good run,” he says, somewhat ruefully. “We were profitable at least from 1998 to 2012.” Sure, I counter, but given the scale of Fantasy Football in all its forms where did all the potential millions go? “I don’t see any company in the UK or the US that has done fantastically well out of Fantasy, as in the end the media owners own it and they themselves don’t necessarily earn that much money out of it.” The issue was intellectual property. Wainstein owned the company name, Fantasy League and the scoring system. Yet he had adapted the idea from one launched in the US decades before. …

    Yet for him, and this confirms my feeling that this is not a story about failure or lost opportunity as such, it has been more about the work/life balance. Wainstein does not see himself as an entrepreneur in the classic sense. “I’ve been on a sort of a personal journey and I’m quite sanguine about it,” he says. “I look back to when I started it; it was about enjoyment and passion.” Success was critical, he explains, and meant more to him than simply money in the bank. “I’m motivated by doing something reasonably fresh. Whatever we’ve done, compared with others in the field, we’ve tried to do it in a new and creative way — and been very successful with it. It’s a loaded dice game,” he laughs now, “and I’ve come out with some wins and some losses, but I’ve actually kept my shirt.”

    Which is a nice antidote to Bill Shankly’s famous dictum, “Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it’s much more serious than that.”

    **

    I’ve been catching up on Spiral, season 6 (shown on BBC4 back in Jan/Feb, but our then three/four month old wasn’t keen on letting us settle down in the evenings to watch telly). It’s gripping drama with the added benefit that the need to concentrate on the subtitles rules out the temptation of being distracted by my phone and suddenly realising I’ve totally lost the plot. It’s also fascinating to glimpse a different legal system — the inquisitorial, rather than the adversarial we Brits are used to — even if spoilsport Wikipedia does tell me this actually applies only to a minority of cases in France.

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