I spent the back half of last week in Toronto with my colleague Jason Skomorowski. Jason’s great company anyway, but on his home turf he steps up a level because he also knows his way around Toronto’s restaurants — and it’s a great city for food. And the most memorable of many superb meals I had in those four days was omakase sushi at Yasu.
Yazu exterior, taken after our meal, at nearly 8pm when it had got dark.
Omakase was a new experience for me. It’s a sushi experience where the chef decides what you eat, and in what order, and the individual pieces arrive one by one.
On Wednesday, Parliament will vote on whether to close the Dubs scheme, which allows unaccompanied child refugees to enter Britain. When established, this scheme was supposed to take in 3,000 kids; it’s done less than a tenth of that, and closing it now would be shameful.
I just wrote a brief letter to my MP to that effect:
As an offshoot from my tweeting about a session at the AAAS meeting, I found myself challenged: “what are some practical things you did with your sons when they were young to nurture critical thinking?”
Given that I wrote some brief answers in response, I thought I might as well write them up here. This is by no means exhaustive, just a few thoughts and memories.
THE COMPLETE BEYOND THE FRINGE — BENNETT, COOK, MILLER AND MOORE
I re-read this compilation of the scripts of the Beyond the Fringe sketches because I was also re-reading Roger Wilmut’s history of early British sketch comedy From Fringe to Flying Circus (see below). As with all cultural movements, it’s sort of arbitrary where one draws the line and says “this is where it started” (were Black Sabbath the first heavy metal band, or do we go back to the Kinks’ You Really Got Me?), but a fair case can be made that the 1961 revue Beyond the Fringe was really the starting point of modern sketch comedy: a show written entirely by the performers, with minimal set and props keeping attention on the words, and combining satire with surrealism.
Cast of Beyond The Fringe, by Lewis Morley, resin print, 1961. Back row, left to right: Peter Cook, Jonathan Miller, Alan Bennett; front, Dudley Moore.
From this beginning, and from subsequent Cambridge Footlights revues such as A Clump of Plinths (retitled Cambridge Circus for the West End), came most of the distinctive British sketch comedy of the late 1960s, 1970s and 80s — including The Goodies and Monty Python’s Flying Circus — and later narrative comedies like Fawlty Towers and Ripping Yarns. But in truth, it’s not at all obvious from the Fringe scripts that all this creativity was waiting to burst out. It’s clearest in the work of the Peter Cook/Dudley Moore duo, which is more prone to veer off on surreal tangents than that of Alan Bennett or Jonathan Miller. But there is a distinctively upper-class quality to the performances of all four (ironically given the relatively unexalted origins of both Bennett and Moore) — which makes it all the more strange to think that Beyond the Fringe was perceived as dangerously iconoclastic back in 1961.
You’ve probably noticed that, in among all the politics and TV reviews and suchlike, I have several long-running intermittent series on the go: detailed Paul Simon album reviews, Desert Island albums, the annual What I’ve Been Listening To posts — and What I’ve Been Reading Lately.
None of those posts get a lot of comments. In particular, the WIBRL posts seem to mostly drop into a void. I wonder whether in part it’s because I tend to talk about ten or so books at once. If I posted shorted WIBRL entries — say, three books each — do you think they would be easier to read and engage with?
You might legitimately ask why I am whining on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on about Donald Trump, when he is president of a country that is not even in the same continent as mine.
One perfectly cromulent answer would be that America’s economic and military power means that whatever it does has implications for every country; and that is true. But for me the issue is much deeper than that.
The real issue is that I genuinely, deeply love America, and I hate to see it abused.
Anyone with expertise in any job always has a tendency to assume other people’s jobs are trivial. For example, I think that managing a programming project is pretty easy compared with the actual programming; but I bet if you asked a project manager, they’d tell you the opposite.
I think this is a universal tendency. We look at anything — carpentry, marketing, baking, merchant banking — and think “Well, that looks easy. It’s just a matter of having the right tools/bluffing/learning some recipes/knowing the right people”. That’s because we don’t see the complexity that people who understand the field do see. It’s related to our old friend the Dunning-Kruger effect and I think it’s a big part of why the people of this country have had enough of experts: because they simply don’t recognise expertise.
My cousin Sue has been a Labour member for thirty years, and is deeply enough involved in the party and its campaigning to have given speeches at the annual conference and appeared as a disability advocate on the BBC.
In the wake of Labour’s three-line whip mandating MPs to vote for Theresa May’s hard-Brexit bill irrespective of whether any of their amendments were accepted (they weren’t), Sue tweeted “There’s only ever 1 question for me. Is today the day I let stupid idiot humans beat an ideal?”. At which point I went off on one and posted a series of tweets in response. I reproduce them below, lightly edited.
WARNING. This will be boring to many people, and infuriating to others. It surely exposes my political naivety. Yes, a case can be made that I should just get over it. Don’t read on if you don’t want to. Continue reading
I live in the United Kingdom, a parliamentary democracy. Let’s recap where we are right now:
- We stand on the brink of the greatest constitutional change in living memory.
- Leading the charge is a Prime Minister who has never won a general election.
- In fact she has never even won a leadership election of her own party, having won by default when her opponent dropped out.
- We are proceeding on the basis of a whitepaper that was thrown together literally overnight and that contains no meaningful analysis.
- Debate has been squeezed into hours, compared with weeks for the much less important Maastricht treaty.
- MPs for the devolved Scottish and Welsh assemblies have been allowed almost no time to speak (though Mark Harper took a full hour).
- The supine opposition party has pledged, before even knowing which amendments if any are to be accepted, to vote for the bill.
- Oh, and the policy that May is forcing through is one that she does not believe in, but has adopted from Nigel Farage –a man who has stood for Parliament seven times, and lost every time. But he gets to dictate policy.
This doesn’t feel like a democracy at all. It feels like a dictatorship, and one totally unprecendented in my lifetime.