What’s Left?

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The image above has been doing the rounds of social media, and speaks strongly to the moment at which the British (or English) left – for which read (or do not read) ‘the Labour Party’ – finds itself in the wake of last Thursday’s General Election. It purports to map the locations of coalfields at the dawn of the Labour movement to those places in England and Wales which voted Labour in 2015, a hundred years later (I say ‘purports’, because, as Newsnight’s Duncan Weldon has usefully collated, Mike Bird has effectively shown how the image is misleading). The left posts this image online as if to say, “You see? Class matters, and we forget it at our peril;” the right shares it around to emphasise just how inadequate Old Labour is to the task of governing contemporary Britain. That one image can be interpreted in two such different ways, or at least be made to serve arguments so clearly opposed, says it all about the post-Miliband – perhaps the post-Blair – Labour Party. It lacks a compass: on the blasted heath of the British left, north can very often be south.

This is why Sam Fawcett at The State of the Left in England can justifiably say, on the subject of the current hand-wringing within Labour about the timetable for the election of a new leader, “The left are saying ‘we weren’t left enough’, the right are saying ‘we weren’t right enough’ and the centre are trying desperately to defend their platform after suffering the worst defeat since 1983 on it. The difference between a long debate and a short one is either we hear this for two months or we hear it for six months.” This is a position backed up by the experience of recent history. It is apparent that the Tory campaign (of which more later) was brutishly effective at hammering home the conception of voting Labour as a risk to economic stability; it could only do so, as Flip Chart Fairy Tales amply demonstrates – with graphs! – because, during the long leadership election of 2010, the Conservatives were given all the time in the world to spin a more or less fictional story about the 2008 crash and the defecit:

If Gordon Brown had not run deficits in the early and mid 2000s, the public debt might now be a little less, but not much. Most of the sharp increase [in] debt came about as a result of the recession. But politics is just as important as economics and the Conservatives won the politics hands down before Labour had realised what was going on. A lot of people are still convinced that the Blair and Brown governments were responsible for the rapid increase in debt in the late 2000s. It will take a long time for Labour to persuade them otherwise. If it ever does.

Already this is happening again: David Cameron opened his first Tory Cabinet by claiming that his was the party for ‘real’ working people; and he has appointed a minister, no less, for Osborne’s pet project, the Northern Powerhouse. With UKIP – who, Nafeez Ahmend’s conspiracy-theory thinking aside, are far closer to outriders for the Tory party than not – clearly eating into Labour’s working-class vote in cities further north of the Trent where many Conservatives daren’t tread, already the stage is being set for a repeat of 2010’s agenda-setting: if you want a vision of the long leadership campaign future, imagine a Tory stamping on a Labour face – for six months.

So let’s think shorter. I’ll put that graph to the right for now, because it’s worth remembering: UK debt was lower than many other major economies’, and it rose precisely in line with everyone else’s. Labour failed to make this case quickly and confidently enough, and in so doing it lost the election. At Policy Network, Patrick Diamond puts it plainly: “Miliband’s team believed an appeal to people’s living standards could trump the core issue of credibility. It would draw a line under the 2008 financial crisis, turning the page on New Labour. The problem was that voters still blamed the previous government for the crash.” This is absolutely key: it doesn’t particularly matter how left- or right-wing you are if you cannot either change or engage with the core argument of an election campaign, and the central concerns of the voters. There is a fairly apolitical, numbers-based argument to be made against the Conservative narrative of Labour failure post-2008; had Labour made it, it may also have been able then to make the weather. But it didn’t – and it risks doing the same now.

The Green’s Molly Scott Cato has received an awful lot of signal amplification for a piece in the New Statesman in which she argues that Labour’s key mistake has been, time and again, not just to fail to challenge but to accept the Conservative narrative: “His decision to resign instantly following the announcement of the result is being interpreted as indicating his nobility, but accepting that Labour was roundly defeated on Thursday is just another example of how Labour has accepted the narrative of its opponents.” Some think Miliband should instead have ‘done a Michael Howard’, remaining as a caretaker and thus allowing the party to fully debate its future – a process from which David Cameron emerged. That is not the world in which we live, however, and, as the Fabians’ Andrew Harrop has pointed out, recovery for Labour is difficult however long the leadership contest and whoever wins it; so it’s brass-tacks time: where next?

Cato, like Andy Beckett in the Guardian, now believes that Lynton Crosby is an evil genius, deliberately fooling us all into thinking the Tory campaign was poor, and ensuring voters scared by neck-and-neck polls would, in the handful of crucial marginal seats, break for the Tories. Certainly the campaign was not the all-conquering success we are now encouraged to believe it to be: the Tory share of the vote went up less in England than Labour’s; only 700,000 more people voted Conservative than in 2010. They did so, however, where it matters: small swings to Labour in safe Tory seats such as Daventry (0.8%!), or constituencies long red such as Michael Dugher’s (“Working-class voters are not core vote any more,” the pit-lad made good bemoans), barely matter; holding vote-share in marginals like Warwickshire North, and ensuring significant shifts to the Tories in Liberal Democrat citadels, is what pushed them over the line. This is attritional electoral warfare fought in the maddening context of First Past the Post.

So Labour should, perhaps, start by mending fences and proposing political reform that would ensure cynicism such as Crosby’s can no longer make the difference in who rules Britain. Labour face a generational challenge in Scotland, and yet the SNP need not be their enemy: Paul Hutcheon’s excellent inside story from the Labour campaign in Scotland shows just how ham-fisted the worst of tribal Labour can be (“He has big ideas,” one source says of Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy, “and a big reputation, but it turns out he doesn’t understand Scottish politics and can’t get anyone to play for him”). This sort of stuff has to stop if Labour isn’t to continue to haemorrhage votes in Scotland; likewise, making common cause with the Greens – allying a vision of the future with a party of governance – could pay real dividends.

But in another way this left-wing coalition is the pipe-dreams of a Jon Trickett tilt at the leadership. Labour must look both ways. It did not pull enough votes away from the Tories; it actually lost votes to UKIP, especially in the north. That is, to quote the historian Dominic Sandbrook, “the British people don’t like hectoring left-wing politicians telling us how to run our lives.” Though Ed Miliband improved his dire poll ratings during the campaign, he came across on the BBC’s Question Time programme a week before the vote very much as an academic giving a series of lectures . He was asked tough questions by an audience in little mood to hear why they were wrong about how they perceived the world; Miliband’s apparent inability to explain why Labour did not over spend whilst also acknowledging voters’ fears is a big reason why the Labour campaign failed. It would not meet people in the middle – it was convinced they would come to it, that they would turn left. Without a reason to do so, without an understanding of why Miliband believed what he did, they would not.

And thus the clarion calls for the party to move rightwards now. In one sense, this is bizarre, as if Miliband ran a Marxist campaign. On immigration, he did not; on benefits, he did not. Rather, the problem was at least in part one of communication as much as substance, a muddiness of argument powered by a nervy pick ‘n’ mix approach to policy. Take this analysis by Business Insider of what is now government policy on free childcare: “It’s probably an indicator of just how bad Labour was at communicating with voters prior to the election that the Tory pledge was for a straight doubling of care to 30 hours, whereas the Labour pledge was an increase to 25 hours plus some other hours if you qualified via a set of definitions.” Business Inside too right-wing for you? IPSOS-MORI say that left-wing voters stayed at home rather than respond to the Labour campaign, too. Worried that’s being reported in the Telegraph? Even Owen Jones understands that Labour has failed to make aspiration its own, when it absolutely must: “Don’t let the apologists of the rich steal “aspiration” for their own purposes,” he says. “Reclaim it.”

To reiterate: from whatever angle you look at it, left or right, Miliband’s campaign failed to convince. “Much is made of the idea of ‘aspiration’ in politics,” says Kieran Pedley in an important post-mortem of the Labour campaign (also at The Staggers, Tim Bale is fair and balanced on the issue of Miliband’s personal culpability), “but this just means recognising what the public want from government and giving it to them. Labour still has a potential majority here.” So. What might left-wing aspiration look like?

umunna-mandelsonIt doesn’t look like Blairism anymore, that’s for sure: despite Peter Mandelson’s appearance on the Andrew Marr show this weekend, and then the bizarre decision by Chuka Umunna to allow himself to be seated next to the Prince of Darkness days before he clumsily announced his candidature for Labour leader on Tuesday, what worked twenty years ago will not today. Bar some waffling about ‘technology changing everything’ in that Marr interview, Umunna seems the back to the future candidate of this new election, insisting that the same triangulation that worked in the mid-nineties will pass now, too. That apparently entirely ignores the extent to which the electoral map of Britain has been chopped up by the 2015 General Election. Recovering from its butchery will take a new approach.

If not Umunna, then who? Liz Kendall, the neo-Blairite, is at least, as one of her supporters, Hopi Sen, archly implies, ideologically more consistent than the former Ed Miliband supporter Umunna, but she may lack gravitas. No others have yet declared, but of the hotly tipped runners and riders, Andy Burnham’s social conservatism lends the lie (for UKIP-bashing good or liberal-losing ill) to his left-wing reputation, whilst Yvette Cooper kept so low a profile in the last parliament that it’s hard to know what to make of her current political position. In other words, no leadership candidate is currently expressing a positive vision of Labour’s future – and, by extension and crucially, the country’s. We should give them time, of course, but there cannot be another failure to engage with what the electorate want, and to explain how – inevitably, given their continued narrow focus – the Tories do not and cannot fulfil those aims.

David Cameron is a PR man to the last: he knows how to govern only in so far as he knows how to campaign for his party via legislation. That requires a robust and powerful vision, whoever becomes leader. A battle-line of this Parliament will be rights and protections – human ones, trades union ones, ones provided by EU regulations. There is anger in the ‘traditional working-class’ about all of these; a Labour leader must simultaneously be able to deal with that scepticism and make the case that it is within the context of rights we all share that aspiration can be most easily achieved. The Tories are committed already to paring back these protections, and they will do so by repeating their General Election trick of fear-mongering; it will be a Labour leader’s job to show how improving one’s lot does not involve reducing the lot of others – or the eventual Pastor Niemöller-like reduction of your own.

Right-wing aspiration is about brute individualism, whatever its One Nation dressing; Left-wing aspiration is about environment (and I evoke the Green agenda deliberately). The new Labour leader will need to show they understand how to craft, argue for and create the conditions in which all can experience success – and yet all can also feel secure. Those are not conditions they will inherit, and so the question is not one of Blairite or Brownite, right or left. It is one of remodelling – and of accessible, pluralist radicalism. The electorate are not stupid, and nor are they students. But they do need to be convinced – and, whilst the Labour right has no monopoly on communication, the left needs to accept it is not impure.

 

A Tide in the Affairs of Men

2015 MapWho would have predicted that? I would like to claim prescience, and might at least suggest I thought the Tories would out-perform the polls – “I expect a surprise mini-swing to the Conservatives which may allow them to cobble together a wafer-thin majority with the Liberal Democrats,” I wrote, but in the event the Tories actually have a wafer-thin majority without Nick Clegg’s party. Indeed, what everyone seems to have missed is the extent to which the Liberal Democrats would fall: their reduction to just eight MPs – to list them in full just because I can, John Pugh (maj. 1322), Greg Mulholland (2907), Alistair Carmichael (817), Tom Brake (1510), Clegg (2353), Norman Lamb (4043), Tim Farron (8949), and Mark Williams (3067) – has powered the Tory dash across the line.

A left-winger might be tempted to feel some satisfaction at this whipping of the treacherous ‘Liberals’. This is foolish: Clegg made a huge mistake in 2010 (whatever guff we continue to hear about the national interest back then), but his party did not deserve in recompense a stiffing by the very Coalition partner they have propped up for five long, gruelling years. One of my two eternal verities of British politics from that previous post – never write off the Tories – has been proven as potent as ever in the party’s ruthless pursuit of yellow seats.

So, too, however, has my second: never underestimate the capacity of the Labour Party to alienate its allies. In Scotland, a generation of errors has resulted in wipe-out; in the south of England, and whilst Liberal Democrat voters did swing by ten per cent to a Labour campaign that had contempt for Clegg, it did not bring Miliband many seats; in the north and the Midlands, the long-ignored white working-class constituency broke for UKIP, ensuring the Tory vote stayed steady enough to hold on in even the most marginal of marginals, such as Warwickshire North. The social democratic majority Miliband and Stewart Wood thought they could construct has been repelled by their advances. Labour has won seats in London and actually modestly increased its share of the vote in England; but it has failed to win seats, and that is the game.

That means two things: first, that strategically the Tories did something right; and secondly, electoral reform remains necessary but, due to the scale of Tory success, is more distant now than yesterday – regardless of the strange bedfellows on this matter UKIP and the Liberal Democrats now seem to be. Let’s talk strategy: Lynton Crosby has got a lot of stick during this campaign, including from me, but his anodyne air war – which seems to have been effective at least in defining a narrative which worried many about the mess a Labour minority government would represent – seems to have hidden an astute, if cynical, target seat strategy. In the south east, for example, nothing changed – except that every Lib Dem seat went blue. This is not a Tory rout so much as a Lib Dem and Labour collapse; the Tory strategy was to create the environment for this – Scottish anger, Coalition blowback – and control the bleed of UKIP voters to the right. It worked, better than I suspect even George Osborne thought it might.

That leaves Labour facing five terrible years: in the north, UKIP are chewing up their vote, and in its Deputy Leader, Paul Nuttall, may have a successor to the half-resigned Nigel Farage who can extend UKIP beyond the south-east. In Scotland, this election is epoch-making: Scottish Labour has haemorrhaged its big beasts and has an anaemic talent base beneath them. And the Tories, of course, have won England decisively, with about 40% of the popular vote. That puts David Cameron in particular in an unassailable position, and – following his centrist pose on the steps of Downing Street this morning – during which speech he thanked Clegg, paid generous tribute to Miliband, and promised homes, jobs and devomax – he will use the EU referendum to keep his backbenchers on the right quiet for the first twelve months of this government. Though Labour will want to have a quick leadership election in an attempt to avoid the same six-month breathing room Cameron had in 2010, the Tory leader will during this period have a good chance of defining the terms of this Parliament, too, before stepping down after 2017.

The one important question which might prevent Cameron having it quite this easy (and his policy in-tray, from Scotland to the EU, should not be easy to deal with) is Labour’s relationship with the SNP: there will be a temptation further to demonise the SNP, who have driven down Labour’s share of the Scottish vote to 1918 levels; but common cause is now essential, both to Labour’s future in Scotland and the UK’s wider politics at Westminster. Labour has lost very many MPs on its right – Alexander, Murphy, Currie and even Balls, whose attraction to austerity was always greater than Miliband’s – and this sloughing of baggage should be taken as an opportunity not, of course, to submit to nationalism … but to establish a meaningful relationship with a party whose greatest threat is to come to be seen as part of the machinery it has for so long railed against.

That is, in one sense this is a new Britain: liberalism on its last legs, a rump Labour party, a new Scottish voice, and even a vocal, if under-represented-in-Parliament, English nationalism. But in other ways it is a very familiar one: a Tory government, confident of its right and mandate to rule; and a Labour opposition wondering dolefully which way to turn. In an oddly unreflective resignation speech at lunchtime, Ed Miliband said change is made by people, not leaders; but, as Cameron or Osborne might toast themselves this evening in Downing Street, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Conversations in the Short Campaign

Ballot-Box-4x3There are, amongst all the other ersatz-yet-eternal regulations which commentators and politicians bring out almost newly-minted to prove their passing points, two rules of British politics: never write off the Conservative Party, and never underestimate the capacity of the Labour Party to alienate its allies. Were we to seek a narrative which might explain the static, enervating and gutless General Election campaign of 2015, these verities might be at its centre. In a period of political flux, in which the two major parties can no longer muster the support to command a majority of the Commons even under an electoral system designed precisely to fix it for them to do so, the Tories and Labour have each remained true to form: an astonishingly weak and witless Conservative campaign has nevertheless edged resiliently ahead in recent polls, despite all the dire warnings about governing parties always losing seats and shares of votes; and a schizophrenic Ed Miliband, on the one hand over-performing to the occasional extent of charming the public (no, really: watch his interview with Geoff Lloyd), has nevertheless gone out of his way to rob his party of any advantage the parliamentary arithmetic may provide it in the face of a larger Tory party, by telling the SNP and everyone else that he would prefer not to govern than work with fellow left-wing travellers.

What we have witnessed, then, is a defensive election campaign: the Tories scaring voters with absurd visions of chaos occasioned by the arrival of actual representatives of Scotland at Westminster, the Labour Party issuing mugs for sale with the words ‘Controls on Immigration’ printed on their sides in satirical socialist red. I have sympathy for both strategies from a purely pragmatic perspective: David Cameron faces a full-throated attack from his right, and knows from his party’s stubborn poll rating that being positive on the subject of the Coalition’s patchy record on the economy isn’t working; Labour also faces a revolt from that constituency which was once at its core – the white working class – and is loath to appear any longer to dismiss apparently widespread concerns about the impacts of globalisation (although, according to May2015, Labour voters at least rate immigration fairly low in their priorities).

Whatever, though, happened to leadership? Both leaders have spent five years denying a core vote strategy, and yet in this short campaign that is clearly what each have been pursuing: hoarding, not winning, votes. It can be little surprise in this context that the polls have shifted so minutely, if at all, or that in frustrated response the mainstream media has resorted to some of its most partisan reportage in a quarter of a century. This has been a grudge match of an election campaign, one in which the balance is so fine that the participants have chosen to avoid mistakes rather than aim for triumph. The Liberal Democrats have adopted an unimaginative and blandly centrist offering, openly placing themselves as useful only as a counter-point to eternally frustrated hard-right Tories or frankly chimeric hard-left socialists. Even UKIP’s Nigel Farage has been relatively tame, as if the speakers of right-wing truth to power have just as much to lose by opening their mouths as their sold-out brethren. The Greens, too – joined with UKIP in being punished by our electoral system – have doubly hobbled themselves, either deliberately or by design, by inexactly and timidly communicating if not their rather confused policy platform then the ideology that sits behind it, which one day might allow a more organised party to craft something a little more coherent.

Only the SNP, of those parties able to make much of an impact on Thursday night, seem to have produced something close to a positive campaign – and a message that seems both forthright and outward-looking. They look set to be rewarded by FPTP with a disproportionate number of seats. And there we reach the rub of this election’s undiscovered country: something remarkable is happening in Scotland, powered by David Cameron’s post-referendum cynicism, but its implications for the future of the United Kingdom are unclear, occluded by fear-mongering and parliamentary chicanery. In deference to the Middle England which the Conservatives’ campaign manager, Lynton Crosby, has sought to terrify with visions of a rampant Alex Salmond, Labour has – perhaps unavoidably, perhaps not – failed to make a crucial twin argument: first from a unionist perspective, as part of the better-together tone of the Yes campaign last year, that representation from all corners of the UK, and all stripes of opinion within it, is welcome at Westminster; and simultaneously from a leftist perspective the important point that nationalism undermines our society’s ability to withstand the pressures of corporate interest (and, should the more conservative position also need to be embraced, geopolitical flux). This rather old-fashioned and myopic Tory-Labour showdown has led us all down an unedifying cul-de-sac of sectional argy-bargy and dancing-on-the-heads-of-pins posing.

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Perhaps all this is why the most striking aspect of this campaign has emerged in my conversations with other voters: that is, their almost universal lack of satisfaction with the choices on offer. As most of the parties have sought to play defence, so most of the voters have identified a vacuum at the heart of each of them. Take an estimable friend of ours who considers himself a natural Conservative but bemoans the decision to give the most successful political party in the Western world back to the Etonians: he considers David Cameron a Liberal or a Blairite (it’s not clear to either of us which is worse), and sees no useful place for his vote in the current system; in a seat in which the Tories could win, he’s attracted to UKIP’s defence policy, and its deficit-busting machismo, but understands how limited their voice and impact will be. He is in this way (and few others) no different to a voter who would love to full-throtedly endorse Labour but, say, finds its range of ceramic drinking vessels less than encouraging.

Where our frustrated Tory might be right, however, is that, for left-wingers who fell out with Labour during the Blair-Brown years, Ed Miliband is their reddest option since dear old Neil Kinnock. He may be keeping TTIP, but he would exclude the NHS from its provisions; he might have supported the Libyan action, but he more or less sabotaged intervention in Syria; and, in his refusal to accept in front of a hostile BBC audience that Labour had spent too much, he is bravely and gamely wearing a Keynesian tin-hat of proportions entirely alien to New Labour. Here’s another conversation we’ve had during this campaign, however: with a leftie who will be voting for the Greens, in a Tory constituency where they have no chance of winning. Any support for TTIP, in his book, is a deal-breaker; Trident must go; Labour is simply not ‘left-wing’ enough. Here is a mirror image of our Tory: a voter faced with signing away any influence on the actual government that is formed in the week following May 7th (assuming, as we all must, a hung parliament), making an imperfect (and arguably self-defeating) choice on the back of the sort of negatives which have defined this campaign.

“Make the Labour party the party you want it to be!” responded another friend of ours when we spoke about this issue. He’s not a member of the party but, like me, grew up in a rock-solid Labour seat, in which paradigms that may now be forever long-gone influenced at least my own political thinking. This sort of hopeful activism, the sort that has done the SNP such good in Scotland, is inspiring, even as it acknowledges the currently broken politics of the left – but is of little use in the voting booth tomorrow. “Vote tactically,” suggested another of our friends, herself marooned in a safe Tory seat and therefore urging us to avoid letting in another chap in a blue rosette via a vote of principle in our own, more marginal, constituency. She is joined by yet another friend, who would prefer to vote Green but, she has said, will vote otherwise in order to hold off the Tories. The siren voices of tactical voting are compelling – is your vote an anti-Tory (or anti-Labour) one more than it is actually committed to an alternative? – but in a feintly rotten borough such as ours, in which the sitting MP has more or less ordered his minor opponents to stand down in order to give him more negative ways to win, they are also fork-tongued and depressing: if we continue not fully to represent in our voting patterns the range of political opinion in today’s UK, will we not continue to suffer under an electoral system struggling to keep up with us?

All of these imperfect decisions look set to leave us with a messy photo-finish on Friday morning. I expect a surprise mini-swing to the Conservatives which may allow them to cobble together a wafer-thin majority with the Liberal Democrats, but inevitably the DUP and UKIP will have influence there. If Cameron fails to get to the magic number of 326 or thereabouts, however, Labour faces a rabid press for months or years – depending on how robust the Fixed-Term Parliament Act turns out to be in practice (and even Nick Clegg has, along with Labour, had a conversion on its rigid strictures in recent days). This may do long-term damage to the left generally and also (and counter-intuitively, given the alternative is government essentially by England) the Union. (To wit: “The House of Lancaster lost the crown in 1461 because Margaret of Anjou did a deal with the Scots.” Oh.)

In many ways, the story of this campaign is why Cameron has been so absent from it – it certainly seems he is not onboard with the bluer-than-blue approach of Crosby; but the story of its aftermath will be how well – or, more likely, how badly – Westminster deals with the SNP. It will be easy to be narrow and factional – more or less the definition of Cameron’s Conservatives (he has not looked good even next to Sir John Major’s contributions during this campaign), and also the direction in which Labour is being pushed by the right-wing press. But this approach will make our next Parliament even more, not less, fractious. First Past The Post, a system once lionised for providing strong government, is now contributing to the political uncertainty which in 2015 is enraging press barons, flummoxing politicians and, most importantly, thoroughly frustrating voters.

 

Parsing Politics in 2015

election2015And so the General Election of 2015. I used to write a lot more about politics on these pages. In one of my last two posts on the topic, I said this: “it’s hard to argue with Dave Osler that the poor don’t have a party“; in the other, I said this: “When there is a political voice that will speak out against those sort of veering right-turns, expect more politics in these pages.” The absence of any such posts since should say the rest.

There is a palsied incapacity in our body politic to express any alternative to the preening austerity of the Coalition Government. The Tories have abandoned any One Nation credentials in their pursuit of a self-appointed task, pursued with temerity since the economic crisis of 2008, to conjure multiple excuses from that single event for various infringements upon the state. The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, emblazon their election literature with the words “stronger economy”, by which they unimaginatively mean “more cuts”. The Labour party, too – powered by Ed Balls’s increasingly macho face-off with George Osborne – are committed to the era’s standard-issue white-bread version of “fiscal responsibility”. The hyperventilation which greeted the election of Syriza in Greece reflects the dicky ticker of our late capitalist pessimism: there is no other way but retrenchment.

This was one of the topics of Adam Curtis’s latest documentary, Bitter Lake. In an interesting experiment, this was released only on the BBC iPlayer, negating the need to split it into a series of episodes, or to edit it into manageable length or conventional structure. I’m not sure this helped the film – it goes for long spells without adding to its own argument, instead focusing on lengthy tessellations of images which tend all to reflect the same contrasts between rhetoric and reality. Indeed, that gap is Curtis’s primary target in the film: he suggests that, following the oil crisis of the 1970s, Western democracies allowed big banks, reigned in since the reforms of the Great Depression, essentially to take charge of economic policy in exchange for social stability. Bitter Lake not entirely successfully splices this idea with the various wars in Afghanistan since the Second World War, arriving at the conclusion that our ruling elite knows its narrative makes no sense – but lacks the imagination to reshape the world as Franklin Roosevelt did.

It may be deeper than that, however. The current political malaise drills down to an issue of the language in which our politics – our identities – are expressed, not just the imaginative capacity of a few politicians. A month or so ago in an edition of the BBC’s horse-race-heavy This Week, the Green MP Caroline Lucas (who on the same programme made a terrible hash of attempting to describe why The Sun‘s Page Three is a bad thing) corrected Andrew Neil on the subject of the Chilcot Inquiry: “You are hoping for vindication, aren’t you?” Neil asked, suggesting that the primary interest of the pacifist Greens in an investigation into the Iraq War was the gaining of political capital. “Well, I rather hope it’s about learning lessons,” Lucas replied, rather nonplussed by the cynicism. As our politicians have become, or reframed themselves as, managers rather than directors of state policy, so the way in which we in turn analyse and assess their motivations and relations has migrated from the ideological to the positional.

This cynicism is present in our political literature: Anna and I have since the New Year burned through the first two seasons of the US remake of House of Cards. The original series, of course, also focused on a fairly venal and dispiriting stripe of politician; yet Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood lacks not only the original Francis Urquhart’s cultured airs and graces, but mostly importantly his political ideology: Underwood appears not to have anything approaching a political position, whilst Urquhart was always identifiably a member of the Tory right, with consistent policy aims that, whilst often presented as straight-forwardly villainous, at least suggested some form of point to holding power. In the US, as in the UK, it has become a governing assumption of our culture that politicians have no guiding principles, only a careerist approach to office-holding.

In this context, political language suffers. Lucas struggled to defend her position on Page Three because the vocabulary of belief is excluded from the discourse; in the days following that appearance on This Week, the Green leader, Natalie Bennet, was judged to have been savaged by Neil on The Sunday Politics when she failed to justify a range of positions he had more or less randomly selected from the more or less crowd-sourced Green website for scrutiny. There is an ideological underpinning to Green policy, even when a particular element has not been adopted by the party as a manifesto commitment; but ideology is either demonised (and not always, as is traditional, by the right) or, and this is something new, simply disbelieved in the way an unsophisticated historian might interpret medieval religion – as a figleaf for the real purpose, which is to hold power cynically and selfishly.

This is the reason, it seems to me, that the Labour Party under Ed Miliband have struggled so thoroughly to offer an alternative to the Coalition’s slash-and-burn narrative. When Miliband suggested in 2011 that capitalists can be split into ‘predators’ and ‘producers’, he risked, as any dichotomy does, reductive thinking; but he also touched on a sense of an unjust capitalism, a need to reign in its wilder excesses, which is felt across the political spectrum. Without the capacity to express that feeling in ideological terms, however, Labour have been left tacking from one tactical formulation to another, adding up to an appearance (and sometimes a reality) of incoherence – and, finally, defaulting to a sort of austerity-lite, which only buys into and reinforces the dominant and destructive managerial paradigm of our political age.

In his defence, in last week’s televised Q&A (if we’re being critical of our political language, let us not hide David Cameron’s frit-ness beneath the word ‘debate’), Miliband reached for some of That Vision Thing: he talked about general directions, opposing Cameron’s statistics-heavy delivery with a sense of passion and vision. Though a snap ICM poll for the Guardian gave the Q&A to the Prime Minister, Miliband’s low-boil attempt to begin to break out of the technocratic strait-jacket had a more lasting effect: more considered polls with larger samples in the days following last Thursday put him ahead, and on Sunday a YouGov poll for the Times put Labour four points ahead.

A ComRes poll today, however, gives the same advantage to the Tories. If we lack a new language to reframe an increasingly sterile political debate (a point of frustration on the right as much as the left, where there is fury that no apparent means of communicating a Tory message for the 21st-century is available to the Conservative leadership), we also lack the means to think about the reasons for this weirdly wheeling public opinion. In the Guardian, Paul Mason suggests that this is due to a fracturing of the British electorate into three tribes: a financialised one residing in the south-east; a Scandinavian one in Scotland; and a more amorphous, ‘post-industrial’ tribe residing in the north of England and in most major cities. These don’t seem entirely convincing – UKIP surely straddles at least two of those groups, whilst what is going on in Scotland seems rather more complicated than a continental drift towards Oslo. But the theory that the tensions of the early 21st century have shaken out the last vestiges of the twentieth, and have left our political classes adrift amid a proliferation of new, baggier identities, feels about right.

Identity politics is a matter of controversy. In the LRB, Jackson Lears recently wrote, as part of a sad assessment of Hilary Clinton’s inevitable ascendancy to the Democratic nomination for President:

The rise of identity politics in America was a tragic necessity. No one can deny the legitimacy or urgency of the need felt by women and minorities to have equality on their own terms, to reject the assumption that full participation in society required acceptance of the norms set by straight white males. Yet even as the public sphere grew more inclusive, the boundaries of permissible debate were narrowing. Critiques of concentrated power, imperial or plutocratic, became less common. Indeed, the preoccupation with racial and gender identity has hollowed out political language, the void filled by an apparently apolitical alternative – the neoliberal discourse of antiseptic intervention abroad and efficient productivity at home.

The danger of identity is that it is so fissiparous that it reduces all ability for publics to join forces in pursuit of something greater. This is the phenomenon of breaking-down described insufficiently by Mason; it is the fracturing that threatens the Tory vote from the right and the Labour vote from the left; and yet it represents the single greatest challenge of this general election campaign. If a new language can be found, and a new narrative acceptable to a unity of interest groups expressed, a breakthrough will be had. If not, we will spend the campaign, its aftermath and potentially another five years of a fractious parliament, playing instead to our increasingly segmented national gallery. Should that be the case, the debate around electoral reform – for the introduction of a system which can at least better reflect, channel and make sense of this Disunited Kingdom – should surely be renewed. It is hard to develop a new language without the appropriate grammar.

“Memories are microscopic”: The Folio, Jenny Offill and Miriam Toews

The shortlist for the Folio Prize 2015, said its chair of judges, sought to show the novel “refreshing itself, reaching out for new shapes and strategies, still discovering what it might be, what it might do”. The winner of the Prize has been announced tonight as Akhil Sharma, and his is one of the shortlist’s three novels I have yet to read; but on reading Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation and Miriam Toews’s All My Puny Sorrows, both superb novels in themselves, you might be forgiven for thinking that the Folio judges have a fairly narrow sense of what the novel might be and do.

Again, that’s not to say either of these books are poor – far from it, both are formidable (and more on this later). On the other hand, both feature a middle-aged female novelist struggling with life at the expense of her art; the narrator is self-recriminating and -critical, placing goodness and kindness and worth in people other than herself, and reflexively wondering why she falls short. Both are also written in that arch, wry, self-conscious sort of tone which I associate with much contemporary North American fiction (and, in all honesty, with the creative writing courses Offill teaches, an occupation she shares with her nameless narrator). Not only that, but Rachel Cusk’s Outline and Ben Lerner’s 10:04 also feature (though I haven’t read them) struggling novelists, and according to reviewers both also tackle this venerable literary conceit in ways designed to nod and wink towards the reader in order to re-fashion what has long been a stock literary situation. Here’s Elaine Blair in the LRB on how 10:04 achieves that:

Author surrogates are more often writerly types than actual writers – academics or journalists if not artists or musicians or something else entirely. We gamely suspend disbelief when the non-novelist turns out to sound like a novelist, though it’s harder for readers today (than, say, in Updike and Bellow’s heyday) not to find the everyman’s lyrical flights distracting and artificial. […] But Lerner’s poet and poet/novelist can shoot straight; their ruminations on matters of art are an important vein of sincerity in his novels. The most cerebral parts give the books substance: not just intellectual substance, but fictional substance – they make Adam and Ben seem real.

deptofspecThis is exactly the approach taken by both Toews and Offill: in the former case, its central pairing of two sisters (the narrator a writer, the other a suicidal concert violinist) constantly trade quotations from Romantic poetry, whilst the latter novel consists of a series of short gobbets, some narratively driven but many drawn from the research and reading undertaken by its narrator, a strung-out novelist, wife and mother who cannot begin, let alone finish, her second book. sa teenager, Toews’s violinist chooses a pseudonym from the same Coleridge poem which gives the novel its title, since Samuel Taylor “would definitely have been her boyfriend if she’d been born when she should have been” [AMPS, pg. 8]; Dept. of Speculation‘s narrator, meanwhile, intends when young to become “an art monster. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn’t even fold his own umbrella” [DoS, pg. 8]. If the novel is refreshing itself here, it is doing so via great transfusions of the past.

Compared with other novels on the shortlist – most obviously my own tip for the top, Ali Smith’s How To Be Both, but also Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s hauntingly horrific and structurally twisty Dust – it might be fair to say that both Offill and Toews do not challenge themselves to imagine other ways of being: most superficially, these are both semi-autobiographical novels (Toews own sister and father also, sadly, killed themselves, whilst Offill really is a creative writing teacher with a husband and young child who has taken fifteen years to write her second novel); the novel-as-work-of-empathy may or may not be reconfiguring itself in these well-turned pages. Whenever I read novels like this, I think of Richard Milward’s Ten-Storey Love Song, as close as mainstream fiction has come to a novel in form and style separated from literary fiction’s increasingly narrow social echo chamber. The Folio Prize might wonder about that next year. (In its defense, one of last year’s shortlisted works – Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing is, differently but no less fully than Milward, also a novel of a separate social class.)

I don’t, though, think that either of these remarkable novels should fall victim to a backlash which has more to do with the Folio judges’ apparent kink for novelist-narrators. To take the considerable virtues of All My Puny Sorrows first, this story of a woman (the writer-sister, stuck in a rut of children’s fiction and with two divorces behind her and two nearly-grown children in tow), and the struggles and accommodations she makes in her life following first the suicide of her Mennonite father, and then the absolute insistence of her internationally-famous sibling on achieving the same self-annihilation, is a thoroughly sad, and yet consistently funny, novel about not death but love. “She wanted to die and I wanted her to live and we were enemies who loved each other,” the narrator, Yolandi, says of her sister, Elfreida (or, as everyone knows her in a nod to her trickster-ish ways, Elf). In many ways, this is a novel without a plot: Yoli travels from Toronto to Winnipeg twice, on both occasions to support her mother and Elf’s husband after a suicide attempt; she then sort of kicks her heels a lot, encountering exes or dealing with lawyers; she faces Elf’s request to help her die in Switzerland; she considers writing her literary novel, about a harbourmaster who winds up in Rotterdam having got stuck on a boat he helps out to the open sea as a storm comes in.

This is a book of often gentle humour – “She told me how to say I have a little man when I should have said I’m a bit hungry,” recalls Yoli of Elf’s teenage mischief with Spanish homework – but also of tender poetry – the sisters’ mother is in many ways the hero of the piece, a woman who is initially “a loyal Mennonite wife [… who] didn’t want to upset the apple cart of domestic hierarchy” [pg. 7], but who is at the end of the novel calling Yoli from “somewhere having a burger and watching the game. Extra innings” [pg. 289]. This mixture of wit and sentiment gives the book a warm kind of vinegariness, and even the occasionally meandering structure – at times it feels like this most personal of novels might have been a little shorter, encompassed a little less experience – allows the characters and their relationships to be painted in all their ambivalence, leading to a far more affecting conclusion. On the other hand, it can be cute: those extra innings are a little too obvious in their double meaning. Likewise, Yoli has a “structural problem” with her novel, because she can’t explain why he doesn’t just use someone’s cellphone to ask for a pick-up – but she’s attached to an image of “one person … marooned at sea, helpless, and the other … standing on the shore, hurt and mad” [pg. 200].

ToewsThis sort of pat-ness recurs throughout. At one point, Yoli says she understands another character’s “need to accomplish something, however strange, something with a clear rising action and a successful ending” [pg. 117], and we hear, Lerner-like, the author addressing her audience. This can grate, and, coupled with the novel’s vague bagginess, tells just a little against it. In its depiction of a woman raking over her “younger self, the person I was before I’d become all of these other selves” [pg. 198], however, All My Puny Sorrows is expansive and affecting; it also shares in this vision of a woman’s life as a succession of roles or poses the central conflict of Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation. The novel is presented in a sort of epistolary form, as a series of short memos-to-self which are often apparent non sequiturs, unconnected to the gobbet before or after, and yet which build with a quite extraordinarily invisible magic into an emotionally powerful depiction of a marriage. It begins with its narrator declaring “ideas about myself. Largely untested” [pg. 7]. Through the course of the novel, life happens – and the testing occurs.

This, of course, is a classic novelistic structure – we might think of Anne Elliot in Persuasion, or of Richardson’s Pamela. In terms of her moral journey, Offill’s narrator, who shares namelessness with every character in this short novel, treads a well-worn path, from youthful assumptions to self-knowledge (the novel’s final line is “No one young knows the name of anything” [pg. 177]). This might make Dept. of Speculation sound a little preachy or self-important, and it’s here that Offill’s structural experimentation really tells: where All My Puny Sorrows can occasionally intrude upon the reader’s reverie, Dept. of Speculation, with its tessellating paragraphs and intellectual fluidity, is entirely open and self-questioning.

In large part, this is down to the novel’s narrator (Toews’s novel, too, derives its best qualities from its brilliantly uncertain protagonist). She is almost painfully self-critical, and rarely allows herself the benefit of even the slightest doubt. This provides the novel with some serious emotional complexity: “Is she a good baby? People would ask me. Well, no, I’d say” [pg. 30] the narrator relates at one point, in a typical show of her antipathy for the child who changes her life; and yet she also exhibits so strong an attraction to her daughter that she thrills when her daughter insists “she will not go to college if that means she must go away from me” [pg. 91]. This facing-both-ways, this aliveness-to-complexity, means that each missive of every chapter cannot be taken to mean only one thing – simply in its very function in the story-structure of the novel, every paragraph works in many ways, sounds at many levels. A snippet of Wittgenstein or a memory of the narrator meeting her husband, when he was just her boyfriend, at a train station after a long time apart – every entry in this curious kind of pseudo-diary speaks to itself, to something else, and to something other.

The narrator attends great parties. She meets an artist whose work is in the MoMA permanent collection (incidentally, Yoli and her mother visit MoMA towards the end of their novel); her best friend is a philosophy professor; she gets a job ghost-writing a book about the space programme for a billionaire. She lives, that is, what many would see to be a gilded life. And yet her vision of herself – her shock at how “some women make it look so easy, the way they cast ambition off like an expensive coat that no longer fits” [pg. 92] – is violently expressed on one page, which reads in its entirety soscaredsoscaredsoscared, repeating until the bottom margin. Her delicate state of mind is indicated only subtlety – when her husband has an affair, the narrator takes to referring to herself not as “I”, but “the wife”, signalling increasing disassociation – and she holds a persistent view that “the most charismatic people […] were that way because they had somehow managed to keep a bit of […] light [… but] that the natural order was for this light to vanish” [pg. 30]. She seems unable for a long time to experience her life as reality rather than an interruption; in some ways, this is a novel for an ageing Generation X. At one point, you will excuse me, her daughter has an X-ray: “Here is the bone,” the narrator almost sighs, “shot through with emptiness.” [pg. 76]

In begruding balance, what Dept. of Speculation, which I cannot recommend enough, lacks a little is All My Puny Sorrows‘ humour, its lightness, its countervailing tendency; but there is black humour here, and also, in those gobbets where the moment is grabbed, something approaching transcendence. In this it shares much more with Toews’s novel beyond the upper-middle-class setting or novelistic protagonists which the Folio judges so admire. “Darwin theorized that there was something left over after sexual attractiveness had served its purpose and compelled us to mate,” the narrator observes many years into her marriage. “This he called ‘beauty’ and he thought it might be what drives the human animal to make art” [pg. 103].

Albums of 2014

It’s become something of a tradition on this blog for me to list, in no particular order, my top five albums of the year. In the main, my selection criteria are self-defeatingly non-specific and impressionistic. I cannot, dear reader, show my working. What I do try to do, however, is listen to every record I recall making a big impact on me in the preceding twelve months, and then wittle them down to those which not just feature wonderful songs, but which hang together and forge something new in the proces. I also try, throughout the year, to avoid featuring LPs I think might be candidates for the year’s-best list in the right-hand ‘Sounds We Like’ column we update each month.

Other, then, than the best of those picks (most obviously Doug Paisley’s beautifully warm Strong Feelings and John Fullbright’s intermittently devastating Songs), what is left? Bubbling under the top five this year are Leonard Cohen’s Popular Problems (far more virile and creative than it has any right to be), Nick Mulvey’s First Mind (unusually well-balanced between gossamer-light and thunkingly-deep), and King Creosote’s From Scotland With Love (KC’s best in years); but also the wonderful Hurray for the Riff Raff’s Small Town Heroes, which sounds like a Gillian Welch record but injects queer theory, feminism and activism into the ossified bones of Appalachian folk, and Samantha Crain’s sweetly growling Kid Face, which was released in the US in 2013, but made it over here in January.

So that’s those. Let’s, though, do the top five.

Gruff Rhys, American InteriorGruff Rhys, American Interior

In 1792, a Welshman named John Evans set out for Baltimore and beyond, in search of a lost tribe of Welsh-speaking Native Americans. In 2012, the erstwhile Super Furry Animals frontman, Gruff Rhys, followed in his relative’s footsteps and toured – for some legs with this year’s Flaming Lips bête noire, Kliph Scurlock – across the Midwest, writing songs as he went. What resulted was a unique record, simultaneously intensely personal and unusually expansive, which includes much of SFA’s famed whimsy but also a real sense of gravity and humility in its treatment of the First Nation peoples and others. From the indie pop of ‘100 Unread Messages’ to the ear-worm electronica of ‘Allweddellau Allweddol’, here is a journey on which every stop is worth making – and yet which also makes sense in itself. Really special.

Dawn Landes, Bluebird Dawn Landes, Bluebird

One of my favourites of last year was Josh Ritter’s The Beast In Its Tracks, and perhaps for that reason I for the longest time tried to avoid including this luminous record in 2014’s top five. Landes and Ritter divorced painfully in 2011, and this record is her side of the break-up story told on Ritter’s LP. I think it may be the more compelling version, because the cracked melodies and keening accompaniment on show here are sparingly heart-breaking. The title track is one of the most simply beautiful songs of the year, whilst ‘Oh Brother’ earns all the comparisons made this year between Landes and Blood On The Tracks-era Dylan: it is not easy to balance anger and tenderness, but Landes achieves both on this remarkable record. She was my accompaniment on a snowy Boxing Day drive; I’m not too big to admit that’s what won Bluebird‘s place on this list. You can’t argue with that kind of pretty.

The War On Drugs, Lost In The DreamThe War On Drugs, Lost In The Dream

There may not be a best-of list produced this year that doesn’t include this entirely unexpected piece of work. The War on Drugs have been making music for years – most famously, Kurt Vile is an ex-member – but they have never burst through in the way they have with this effort, which is best described as Mercury Rev meets Dire Straits. If that makes it sound a teensy bit old-fashioned, I might not be unfair in implying so; there’s something meaty about this LP which consciously recalls the sort of ‘event’ record which isn’t really made these days. At the same time, it sounds extremely fresh – ‘Red Eyes’ in particular sits very comfortably in the current radio landscape, rather than idling at the back of the room waiting for nostalgics at Absolute to playlist it. What I think so many people have responded to in this album is the obvious earnestness of its making: here is music that is cared about by those recording it. That doesn’t make it joyless – quite the opposite – and this mixture of spot-on musicianship, careful songcraft, total commitment and enthusiasm for melody makes Lost In The Dream potentially one for the ages.

St Vincent, St VincentSt. Vincent, St Vincent

I’ve long felt I’m missing something when it comes to St. Vincent. Most everyone whose opinion about music one should respect seems to believe Annie Clark to be something close to the unacknowledged saviour of the pop song, and yet I’ve never managed truly to connect with her work. (Nodding, chin-strokingly, doesn’t count.) But St Vincent hit me straight away, despite – or maybe because of – a sense that Clark has not even tried to leaven her idiosyncrasies this time around. The album’s cover features her dressed in purple and seated on a throne, and this imperious pose is maintained throughout, with songs like ‘Rattlesnake’ and ‘Digital Witness’ sounding like the swaggering sort of cuts which should be selling the units currently flogged by Gaga. At its weirdest – on ‘Surgeon’, perhaps, or ‘Psychopath’ – Clark seems to be willing the listener to disconnect. But there’s something magnetic about music which playfully gives no quarter, when so many songs package themselves as products, or movements morph into genres, and this makes St Vincent in many ways the most exciting record of the year.

Beck, Morning PhaseBeck, Morning Phase

I wanted to smash idols, I promise. I didn’t want to be another writer giving Beck Hansen the thumbs-up, or teaching other listeners to suck eggs. Despite his recording hiatus, which individual interested in music is not aware that Beck is a genius? Which of us would deny an Odelay, Midnite Vultures or Sea Change a place in the pantheon? The astonishing news: this may be at least as good as most of those, and certainly singularly reminiscent, as all critics have noticed, to the latter. Some have suggested this is playing safe; I’m not at all sure this trippy album is what they think it is. Morning Phase breaks like a sunrise, and drifts like purple cloud. It is capacious enough to include the catchy – ‘Heart Is A Drum’ – and the ambient – ‘Waves’. On that latter song, Beck sings, “I move away from this place / In the form of a disturbance / And enter into the world / Like some tiny distortion.” In just that way, Morning Phase gently disrupts the time during which you listen to it; it sounds simple, even reductive (that space-cowboy image on its front cover), but casts around at all times for the grace note and the giddiness that can cast new light on its chosen forms. Honestly super. Cast up your idols, people.

“The Devil’s Pet Baits”

We’re excited to announce that, in the year of the publication by Anthony Horowitz of a large section of Professor Moriarty’s long-lost personal papers, this blog has been granted access to a much shorter, and much earlier, passage from the Napoleon of Crime’s private journals. It is dated December 27th, 1887, and begins in what appears to be the form of a letter. There is no record of it ever being delivered.

Pd_Moriarty_by_Sidney_PagetSir,

Your insouciance is intolerable. As twin poles in the invisible tug of war at the heart of London’s seething underworld, here we have both been, engaged in an absurd chase across the metropolis in search of some poultry. I have followed you, and you have stalked me; we have competed for the crop of a goose, and it is you that have taken home the game. Yet the manner – the arrogance! – of your victory seems calculated to insult, to claim a kind of superiority you may feel but certainly have not won in so trifling a moment. I cannot abide such theatrics. They are the weakest mark of your often admirable character.

For instance, I find your capacity for manipulation remarkable. I confess to a regard for the extent to which you are able to feign unconcern, particularly to even your closest friend. I saw the under-informed chronicler of your exploits enter your rooms on the second morning after Christmas, and I saw him leave; not a trace was there upon his countenance of the grave concern he should have felt. From my cab I had seen that infernal commissionaire rush into Baker Street. I knew what he had in his pockets – my own agents had narrowly missed him at home (the reward he may still share with you will barely pay for the damage to his belongings effected by my men as they searched fruitlessly for the Countess of Morcar’s stone).

You also knew – yes, Moran had seen you near the Hotel Cosmopolitan on the day of the theft -that my network was bent upon liberating the blue carbuncle from that venal aristocrat; you knew, like me, that her possession of it was the result of only the latest in the long line of misdeeds which have characterised the passage of its value between human hands. And you knew, but have shared with no one, that my possession of the stone would have funded many more of my activities – which you so doggedly attempt to frustrate. This contest between you and I which you so thoroughly keep from your literary doctor remains secret to both our advantages – but rarely have you caused me more bother than in this, one of my potentially most lucrative single affairs. Your pace, perhaps, picks up.

Your newspaper advertisement in search of the man who had originally intended to eat the goose in which your commissionaire had found that stone was a wonderful ruse, and of course it occurred to me that, in order to be led to the source of that goose, all I need do was follow you. The bird had disappeared from my own view, too. I should not, in hindsight, have entrusted any moment of the carbuncle’s existence to that fool Ryder. His role in the operation should have remained within the confines of the Countess’s  hotel. My mistake was to assign him the role of carrying the stone from the Cosmopolitan to an agent in Twickenham the following day. His fear of me was so great that he did not reveal my role even when you bullied him so mercilessly in your rooms; I thought it would also be so great to ensure his competence. His bizarre decision to place that stone in a goose is proof enough that even my intellect can at times slip from grace.

I stalked you, then, through Covent Garden market during your search for the source of Ryder’s goose. You – and therefore we – were so close, and at any time I might have successfully overtaken you, fatally for you or otherwise, and skipped ahead a step to the stone … but how might I have accounted for the absurd coincidence of your almost bumping into the rat-faced Ryder himself? Even then, I waited outside your rooms, sure you would call Lestrade or some other of Scotland Yard’s useful idiots, and assumed that the stone, once in the police’s possession, would soon again be mine – a constable on duty is easily paid to be in dereliction of it. Of course, you guessed this. Ryder fled your rooms a free man, the terror which propelled him more of me than of the gallows, and I understand he is already bound for Australia; the stone, meanwhile, remained in your rooms, and in your strong-box. The Countess will reclaim it tomorrow directly from you, and be more vigilant of me than ever (as so she should – for the last time we clashed she almost paid with her life).

There will be no weak link in your chain this time, no chink in the armour of another of your neat solutions. I am, in our shared adventure of the blue carbuncle, undone – and you may pose as the noble fount of festive charity, rather than the sly, deceitful nemesis of an adversary you seek to thwart with every move.

Perhaps one day you will have to admit the truth. Until then, there is only one thing left for me to say.

Merry Christmas, Mr Sherlock Holmes.

Professor James Moriarty