Gavin Esler is an award winning television and radio broadcaster, novelist and journalist. He is the author of five novels and two non-fiction books, The United States of Anger, and most recently Lessons from the Top, a study of how leaders tell stories to make other people follow them. It’s based on personal encounters with a wide variety of leaders, from Bill Clinton and Angela Merkel to Tony Blair, Margaret Thatcher, and even cultural leaders such as Dolly Parton.
Reviewers have been full of praise for Esler’s fiction and story-telling abilities. The writer Bernard Cornwell said his novels are "made luminous with wisdom, sympathy and story telling." The Guardian commented that Esler's fiction displays "undoubted sympathy for the human condition and a burning anger, a genuine lyricism, a quick sensitivity and a real understanding of other people." The Financial Times said Esler's stories of people in power and the compromises they are forced to make, shows that he "understands the political beast better than anyone."
This lady should be for turning: stubbornness could be Theresa May's ultimate downfall
Margaret Thatcher lost her grip on power by sticking to her guns over the poll tax. Mrs May could end up doing the same by ploughing ahead with her unpopular Brexit deal.
"Mrs Thatcher was stubborn in pursuit of clear objectives, when asked to do a U-turn, she famously quipped: You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning.” @gavinesler on why stubbornness could be Theresa May's ultimate downfall https://t.co/j56YUXgyBS
Tomorrow's midterms could be a repeat of Clinton's catastrophic errors in the 1990s
Trump faces a similar test, with polls predicting the Republicans will lose control of the House of Representatives but might hold the Senate.
America’s midterm elections take place tomorrow, giving voters the opportunity to deliver a rebuke to Donald Trump and steer the US in a different direction. But will we see a repetition of November 1994, when then president Bill Clinton and his New Democrats were thoroughly humiliated? The results then were so bad that one commentator prophesied “curtains for Clinton”. Republicans swept into the Senate and House of Representatives and America lurched heavily to the right. Mr Clinton said he would work with his political opponents “to serve all the American people in a non-partisan manner” and by 1996, he himself lurched to the right, claiming “the era of big government is over”.
"Inventing American Tradition: From the 'Mayflower' to Cinco de Mayo" By Jack David Eller
Canterbury Cathedral reeks of tradition. The home of the Church of England and Anglicanism, it may have a 21st-century Twitter handle, @No1Cathedral, but behind that lies more than a thousand years of history. When I was asked to become chancellor of the University of Kent, based in Canterbury, I was, I admit, daunted by the weight of tradition. One tradition, dating from the university’s founding in 1965, is for the chancellor to wear a heavy green silk and gold-braided gown created for the first person to exercise that office, Princess Marina. I was worried about how I would control the awkwardly flapping cloth and matching headgear as I processed into No1 Cathedral for the first time in front of a congregation of a thousand people to present degrees to graduating students. ‘What if the mortar board slips off?’ I said to the vice-chancellor, Dame Julia Goodfellow, ‘or if I trip on the gown and fall flat on my face?’ ‘Don’t worry,’ she assured me. ‘Anything that goes wrong in the cathedral, you just say it’s a tradition.’
Who are the Brexit posse chasing us off the cliff?
In one of the most famous bits of dialogue in a modern film, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the two robbers are being pursued by a posse which they can’t shake off.
“Who are those guys?” Butch and Sundance keep asking each other, before being forced to jump off a cliff.
“Who are those guys?” is also a question many of us have been asking about a different desperate posse, the Brexit Bunch, the group of self-confident politicians, motor-mouth Brexiteers and assorted think tankers who have led us into this Brexit shambles.
To be clear: Brexit is not in trouble because of those of us who oppose it. It is in trouble because those who are most enthusiastic about it cannot deliver the fantasy they promise. So it is worth asking, before we jump off our own cliff, who are those guys?
How Britain's surge in measles cases shows those who shout loudest often know so little
The lessons learned from the MMR debate: facts must be separated from the smooth patter of snake oil salesmen
Here’s a story for our time. A campaigner, an articulate, convincing talker – although a bit of an outsider –creates around himself an extraordinary media blitz. He passionately declares to anyone who will listen that he is telling the truth, despite all the controversy he has caused.
Truth decay matters – whatever Rudy Giuliani and his master might say
Politicians have always stretched the truth but in the world of lies in which we now live, truth decay extends from politics to science
The storm over Rudy Giuliani's comments last weekend that "truth isn't truth" are a reminder of the dispiriting sense that we are all suffering from “truth decay”. That’s the phrase used by the highly respected Rand Corporation to account for a world in which lying and deceit have become normalised.
“We’re in the Br-excrement. We’re up to our necks in it, it's a mess."
Supporter of the People's Vote campaign, Gavin Esler, says there should be a vote on the final Brexit deal.pic.twitter.com/qRksU7Kr60
Insect Armageddon: how modern life is killing man’s essential friend
If every last bug were to be killed off, it is difficult to see how humans could long outlast them
Here is this year’s most unpopular cause: insects. I suspect, if you think of insects at all, you will be absolutely sure you have enough of them in your life. What is there to like about those six-legged little beasts, which can bite at one end, sting at the other and are generally regarded as pests? None of us want them near our bodies, in our homes, cars, or (worst of all) anywhere near our food.
When the facts change, rational people change their minds. It’s normal. It’s advisable. We do it every day.
The facts about Brexit have most certainly changed over the past two years and I’ve now changed my mind about that too. When once I quietly accepted a democratic vote to make Brexit happen, I don’t any more.
Could you give up social media for a month? Scroll Free September gives pause for thought
A new campaign is urging people to ditch their smartphones for a month – but there could be better ways to learn healthy online behaviour
It’s possible you are reading this article after following a link on Twitter. Or perhaps a friend recommended it on some other part of the social media universe. Most days I read news stories, features, interesting anecdotes, surveys, opinion polls and other informative material by scrolling through social media.
Fresh-faced university graduates are our best hope of deflecting fake news
Universities are not merely buildings full of knowledge, books and clever people – they are institutions which live up to the values of the Enlightenment. That means they are a good place to kill off misinformation
Set in the English county of Kent, an hour by train from London, Canterbury Cathedral is one of the most magnificent buildings in Europe. It’s 1,000 years old, one of the oldest buildings in Britain and in the past week, it has also been one of the happiest.
Has Trump made Uncle Sam the embarrassing relative at a wedding?
The US president's UK tour sparked a tidal wave of anti-Trump sentiment, which is in danger of breeding a generation of America haters
In the unlikeliest of places, the Amazon jungle, I once met two intrepid young British tourists. I was filming television reports on the burning of the rainforest. They were eco-tourists exploring an extraordinary and exotic part of the world. I happened to mention that I had also been filming in another remarkable natural setting – the deserts of the western United States. I suggested they might like to visit the US.
The secret weapon of the Republicans is loyalty – but it will be sorely tested with the midterm elections just six months away
The big question is whether Republicans sensing defeat in November might be more open about distancing themselves from a president with a bizarre leadership style, incompetent White House staff and dubious personal morality, writes Gavin Esler
Finding news has never been easier. Finding information we can trust is much more difficult
Twenty years ago this week I was sitting in a TV studio in west London waiting to be the first voice on the BBC’s first 24-hours-a-day news channel. Nowadays along with BBC World, the BBC News channel is the spine of much of the BBC’s journalism.
David Suchet CBE is an actor, playing roles on the stage, on television and in films for over 40 years. Series three continued with a special episode of In Conversation on Friday 3 November 2017 in the Colyer-Fergusson Concert Hall, where Gavin questioned David on everything from finding his voice, how he developed and transformed into his characters, and what Agatha Christie’s family thought of his portrayal of Poirot.
What does the future of work look like?
Gavin Esler travels to Paris to sample the views of experts and thinkers on artificial intelligence and what we all be doing once robots take over in the workplace.
Francesca Simon is an author of children’s books, the most famous of these being the Horrid Henry series, illustrated by Tony Ross.
In our first special family-friendly episode of In Conversation on Saturday 28 October 2017, Gavin asked how the famous naughty child was created and how Francesca developed him in to a fully-fledged personality. She drew on her own experiences, translating perfectly in to Henry’s Horrid world. Gavin also explored her expansion into books for older children and how everything she writes has some sort of archaic basis…
In Conversation with Owen Jones
Owen Jones visited the University of Kent on 23 October 2017 as a guest in our In Conversation series.
The informal chat with Chancellor Gavin Esler covered a variety of topics, with a particular focus on the political climate in the wake of the 2017 General Election and the 2016 European Union Referendum.
In the struggle against terrorism, torture is counter-productive and morally wrong
Winston Churchill is supposed to have joked that “you can depend upon the Americans to do the right thing, but only after they have exhausted every other possibility.” It is a fine, affectionate quip and it sums up an extraordinary and extremely detailed new report by the US senate select intelligence committee. The report was into torture, one of the most unpleasant by-products of the struggle against terrorism.
Could China Teach Western Governments a Lesson in Competence?
My new job description is “professional tennis player”, although Rafa Nadal can rest easy. I’m enthusiastic but incompetent. And by “professional”, I mean I play tennis when I should be working. The idea of amateur enthusiasm posing as professional competence is one of the stories of our time.
The "Obvious" solution to gun massacre... Gun Control
The talented literary agent, Ed Victor, once wrote a book with an intriguing title: The Obvious Diet. He was trying to lose weight and he read various how-to-diet books with increasing disappointment. He was struck by something, well, obvious. Diet books are often ways of selling more food. Some involve the purchase of special diet supplements, diet plans, fancy juices or supposed wonder foods.
On Tuesday 3 October, humanitarian and author, Terry Waite CBE joined us for the In Conversation series. Watch as he relates his time as a hostage in Lebanon, his career and perspectives on life, faith and politics.
Would You Trust A World Leader To Babysit Your Children?
It cannot just be me who is thinking this, surely. But over the past few months and with increasing frequency I have been asking myself the same troubling question. World leaders and major political figures have often had delusions of grandeur. But are we now living in an age when a remarkably large number of politicians actually have delusions of competence?
In a one-off special at the Astor Community Theatre, Deal, Gavin Esler was joined by fellow journalist and writer, Polly Toynbee for In Conversation.
Kim Jong Un, Gambling and the 1% Doctrine
As a 15 year old, I broke a big school rule: no gambling. Like most teenagers, I knew everything about everything and had no concept of danger nor of my responsibility to others. But I did know I was good at poker, which meant that even though I played with my friends only for pennies, I would usually emerge from a game with more money than when I started. Repeatedly winning while gambling creates a dangerous delusion of infallibility, especially in someone who is quite immature. I did not understand that I was risking much more than pennies.
A few years ago I had the great pleasure of spending some time with Bruce Forsyth at his home. He was generous with his time, delightful, funny and full of stories about his career. I was very amused to see in his downstairs loo he had a poster from the 1960s with him at the top of the bill (of course) at the London Palladium. Underneath was a long list of other stars, and near the bottom of the bill an obscure pop band called .... The Beatles. Brucie was a great entertainer for years and for the generations. Much missed.
My Top 5 Rules For Spotting Twitter Trolls
The most virulent trolls are always anonymous, too cowardly to identify themselves.
The most stupid comments come from those with the silliest phoney Twitter names.
The abusers usually have few followers but Tweet incessantly.
The less the troll knows, the greater the certainty with which he (and it is usually a "he") claims to know it.
And women on social media receive the worst abuse.
Know-Nothings & the Un-Enlightenment
One of the great puzzles of life is why people who know nothing about a subject are so keen to demonstrate their ignorance by sounding off about it. Perhaps there is nothing new in this, but social media and international TV broadcasts mean stupidity is now globalised. Ignorance can go viral, publicly, loudly and worldwide before Knowledge gets its boots on.
In the West, the traditional political system is broken. The question is: how do you fix it?
The most important political division in the world used to be between the left and the right. No longer. Nowadays it is between those who believe the economic and political system worldwide broadly works for them and those who don’t. Political divisions of the old fashioned left-right variety still exist, but the "system works or does not work" division cuts through what used to be normal. I know all this because Dave, the builder who has been working on my house, told me so.
We have reached Peak Populism. (Probably.) With populism, the caveat is necessary because the wave of discontent which swept the world in 2016 remains unpredictable, but the evidence is clear. Populism worldwide is waning or mutating, and is certainly not the force it was a year ago. Britain voted for Brexit in 2016, and populist discontent with ailing economies, stagnant wages, and government failures brought us Trump in the USA, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, and a host of new parties and groupings apparently edging towards power across the world.
I'm delighted to say that the University of Kent is hosting a new series of IN CONVERSATION with some absolutely terrific guests. Coming up we have Polly Toynbee, Michael Gove, Owen Jones, Terry Waite and Francesca Simon all in the schedule and other top names have confirmed they want to take part but we are juggling dates. Francesca Simon will be spending the afternoon on the University of Kent's lovely campus overlooking Canterbury.
We expect a very big demand for tickets from her many loyal readers. Terry Waite will undoubtedly talk with me about his experiences in captivity in Beirut but will also reflect on the role of religion and the church today, at a time when religious persecution and bigotry towards people of different faiths remains part of our lives. Polly Toynbee, Michael Gove and Owen Jones will undoubtedly be discussing their own lives, formative influences and careers but also topics as diverse as how to pay for a university education, Brexit, Trump, and Britain's future role in the world. Do join us! Tickets have in the past gone very quickly so please book early to avoid disappointment, Dates and times are listed on this website under EVENTS, and available through the University of Kent Gulbenkian theatre, Collyer Ferguson theatre or (in the case of Polly Toynbee) from the Astor Theatre in Deal, Kent.
Sunday, 23 July 2017
In Conversation with Jo Brand
In Conversation with Jo Brand at the University of Kent on 28 February 2017.
In Conversation with Dame Diana Rigg
On 28 November 2016, Gavin Esler, Chancellor of the University of Kent welcome Dame Diana Rigg DBE to the University as part of the second series of In Conversation.
In Conversation with Bernard Cornwell
Bernard Cornwell OBE joined Gavin Esler for the third In Conversation of series two, on 17 October 2016.
The United States of Anger (1998)
In the 1990s I travelled around 48 of the states in the United States and was astounded by the level of anger I found among ordinary middle income Americans. I wrote a book, published by Penguin in 1998, about my experiences called THE UNITED STATES OF ANGER. The themes of that book explain why Donald Trump is to be the next President of the United States. I thought that sections of the book would appeal to readers today, and so I have begun to place some of the text in the BOOKS section of my website.
The roots of the Trump presidency extend back to the economic "good times" of the Clinton presidency, when the fissure between the richest Americans and those left behind began to open wide. If Americans were angry -- and they were -- during the period of great economic growth in the 1990s, you can imagine the impact the recession has had on ordinary working people. Let me know what you think - email@example.com
Gavin Esler In Conversation with Count Herman Van Rompuy
In Conversation with Sandi Toksvig
On Tuesday 4 October, the second series of In Conversation began at the University of Kent. Gavin Esler was joined by Sandi Toksvig OBE for an evening of conversation... with laughter aplenty!
In Conversation with Robert Wyatt
Robert Wyatt, legend of the Canterbury Scene, was the sixth and final guest of the 2015/16 series of Chancellor's conversations
In Conversation with Louis de Bernieres
Our In Conversation at the University of Kent with Louis de Bernieres was an evening of great wit and insight. It began with Louis describing how he had been at school for a time in Kent, a school in the county of Charles Dickens which sounded as if it could have come from a Dickens novel. As Louis put it, the head teacher was a paedophile and the deputy head was a sadist. Louis said he prefered the paedophile. "At least he liked us." I'll put the video of our hour long (and often very funny) conversation up on the website when it becomes available. The next season of IN CONVERSATION begins with the delightful, wonderful SANDI TOKSVIG in early October, followed soon afterwards by an old friend, BERNARD CORNWELL. Watch out for further details.
Gavin Esler In Conversation with Alastair Stewart
Alastair Stewart OBE was the next guest in the Chancellor's In Conversation series when he visited the University of Kent on 20 February 2016.
Gavin Esler In Conversation with Mark Kermode
Saturday 23 January saw the visit of Mark Kermode to the University of Kent's Canterbury campus. The University Chancellor, Gavin Esler, welcomed Mark to the University in front of a packed-out Woolf Lecture Theatre.
Gavin Esler In Conversation with Ian Rankin
On Saturday 7 November 2015, the University's Chancellor, Gavin Esler, welcomed Ian Rankin OBE to the University for the second 'In Conversation' of the 2015/16 academic year.
Gavin Esler In Conversation with Gerald Scarfe
Joining University of Kent Chancellor Gavin Esler for the first instalment of this series of 'In Conversation' was celebrated satirical cartoonist and illustrator Gerald Scarfe CBE.
Gavin Esler In Conversation with Lord Kinnock
Gavin Esler, the University of Kent's Chancellor, launched the In Conversation series in 2015 with a visit from Lord Kinnock.
The Good Goering
Hermann Goering, Hitler's deputy and chosen successor, plus the man who led the Luftwaffe into the Battle of Britain, had a younger brother, Albert. And Albert was a very different Goering. But was he - as some claim - the "Good Goering?" I've been finding out for BBC Radio 4.
While visiting the court house in Nuremberg, the site of the Nuremberg trials, one of the excellent historians at the related museum was scheduled to record a BBC interview with me. Unfortunately she phoned to say she had been delayed. She needed to visit her doctor. When she eventually turned up she revealed that she was in considerable pain -- as a result of the bust of Hitler that, in Nazi times, had once stood at the courthouse.
Apparently during the Nuremberg trials one of the US military doctors called in to check on the health of the top Nazis who were accused of war crimes, decided to "borrow" the bust of Hitler which stood at the front of the court. When his tour of duty at Nuremberg ended (we believe in 1947) the bust disappeared. Then early in 2015 the Nuremberg courthouse recieved a telephone call from the United States. The former military doctor had died and his widow was desperate to return the bust of Der Fuehrer. (You can understand why.)
The historian was despatched to the United States to pick it up, but as she was hurrying to catch her plane home to Germany she slipped on ice and the very heavy bronze bust of Hitler, which she was taking as hand luggage, cracked her ribs. The poor woman returned in considerable pain to Europe but had to change planes in Schiphol airport in the Netherlands. There the security staff X-rayed her bag and saw the face of the greatest war criminal of the last century, the man who had invaded their country in 1940, staring back at them. They called the historian over to answer a few questions -- clearly assuming she was some kind of neo-Nazi Hitler admiring nut. When she produced evidence of her identity as a leading historian she was allowed to go on her way .... but Hitler, in the strangest of ways, had a bit of revenge on those whose job is to ensure that Germany and the world never forgets about his deeds.
Our historian friend tried to laugh about the incident, but her ribs still hurt.
Fatherhood. The best thing …
Thanks to the Defence Academy at Shrivenham for inviting me to lecture to senior military officers, MoD staff, and others. What an engaging, interesting, tough minded and experienced audience. I was especially delighted with the feedback, which I reproduce below. Most importantly, from my point of view, the audience understood why PowerPoint and similar lectures can be a turn off. I just talked about leaders and leadership and answered questions to the best of my ability. Here's a flavour of the responses.
“he showed that PowerPoint is unnecessary when you are a gifted orator. I did not lose interest once.”
“Gavin demonstrated the value of distilling issues and keeping it simple – ‘less is more’. Brilliant.”
“First class session. Someone able to draw on his experience to offer insights relevant to our own challenges. Excellent and entertaining presentation, and handled a large number of questions professionally and with good humour.”
“engaging, articulate, personable and a raft of stories to tell, you could not go wrong! Some real nuggets to take back to base and reflect upon.”
“I attended seeking some thought on how to deal with negative reputational issues suffered by the team I am working with. This talk has given me some thought on how I might deal with achieving a change in how the team is viewed.”
“what an excellent and inspiring speaker! By setting the ‘story’ message in the context of people we know I now appreciate the importance of my own story. "
Thanks to all those involved in the organisation of the event.
Monday, 13 April 2015
Jimmy Page & Inspiration
I spent part of today with Jimmy Page, someone who appears on everyone's list of the greatest rock guitarists of all time.
We were talking, among other things, about his re-mastering of the Led Zeppelin double album PHYSICAL GRAFFITTI to be released this month in time for the 40th anniversary of its first release. But what struck me was that our conversation constantly turned to innovation and inspiration. Jimmy Page would repeatedly say that Led Zeppelin could have made the same sounding music over and over again but never wanted to. If some elements of the fourth album sounded a bit like Led Zeppelin 2, they would abandon that idea and move on. It was the definition of creativity.
If you go to McDonalds you do not get the best hamburger you have ever eaten in your life, but you do get one which will, almost certainly, taste like the one you had yesterday and the one you can buy tomorrow. Some artists and writers are like that. A friend of mine who coordinates a literary festival complained that if she gets yet another new novel calling itself "the new GONE GIRL" she will go mad.
Like McDonalds, some publishers only want to publish what they published before, and some musicians want constantly to rework their former hits. The fact that Jimmy Page absolutely does NOT want to do that explains why in its fifth decade, Led Zeppelin still sounds fresh, as if every recording is in fact a live show.
I don't usually get nervous before interviewing people, but I was very nervous before meeting Meryl Streep this week. The reason is not that she is formidable - although she plays some very formidable characters. She was in London to promote her role as the witch in Into the Woods - but the witch character is a pussycat compared to Streep's role as the matriarch in August: Osage County. She also played Mrs Thatcher in The Iron Lady but -- as she reminded me -- she was also in Mamma Mia.
The thing that made me nervous was that as a fan I have admired her from afar for so long and I was worried that maybe, just maybe, up close she would not be what I had admired. Years ago, in one of the worst interviews I ever conducted, I met Catherine Deneuve and before the interview I was full of admiration for her. After the interview? Well, let's just say that I have met less petulant 3 year olds. And so I waited for Meryl Streep in our film location in central London hoping that she would be all that I ever thought she was: extremely smart, witty, talented. She was all of the above, and also funny, self-deprecating, plugged in to the wider world beyond Hollywood.
The interview will be aired on the BBC this week, but after we stopped recording I mentioned to her that however scary her role as the witch was supposed to be, it was nowhere near as terrifying as the matriarch in the Osage County movie. "Scared me too," she said, and she meant it. And what makes Meryl Streep nervous? Well, on Day One of shooting Into the Woods she was as she put it "first up" when it came to recording her songs, written by Steven Sondheim. She entered the recording studio and discovered that sitting in the gallery was ... Steven Sondheim.
Thursday, 8 January 2015
Prog Rock Awards 2014
THE WHO - and LIVE AT HULL?????
Spent the day at the lovely British Grove studios in Chiswick with Pete Townshend and a host of performers preparing for The WHO at 50 - their gig at the Shepherds Bush Empire. Had a long chat with Roger Daltrey about why he works so hard for the Teenage Cancer Trust (the charity is benefitting from the concert) and of course we talked about how a band who sang "hope I die before I get old" made it to 50. But the killer fact emerged that one of my favourite albulms of all time LIVE AT LEEDS was supposed to be LIVE AT HULL. Unfortunately they failed to record the bass .... and panicked a little ... what can we do? I know, we're doing Leeds University ...let's try again ...
A few years after the recording I was a post-graduate at Leeds and was taken very solemnly to see where Daltrey stood and where Townshend stood during the recording. LIVE AT HULL. Apparently it was a great gig, but somehow LIVE AT LEEDS is a better title.
Friday, 14 November 2014
Barack Obama & the US Mid Terms: COMMENTARY
The era of hope is over. If the results of the U.S. mid-term elections have been a huge setback for the Democrats, they were a personal catastrophe for Barack Obama.
They were even worse than the most pessimistic forecasts of his party’s strategists, amounting to a comprehensive rejection of his governance.
With the Republicans now in control of both the upper and lower Houses of Congress, the twilight of Obama’s presidency has begun.
The man who once electrified the American nation with his soaring oratory - and titled his book on political philosophy The Audacity Of Hope - is now the lamest of ducks in the White House, mired in unpopularity and devoid of allies.
In this election, Democrat candidates saw him as a liability rather than an asset - with most of them running away from him like scalded cats.
But the attempt to quarantine the President paid no dividends for his party.
In my new role as Chancellor of the University of Kent I am delighted to be giving this year's Foundation Day lecture celebrating 50 years since the university was founded. It has come a long way since the 1960s. The title for the lecture is TRUST ME: How trust has been diminished in the Suspicious Century.
Tuesday, 14 October 2014
Ava Duvernay and David Oyelowo
Reflections on the Revolution in Scotland (2)
It's not a revolution of course, but ....
So much has changed. People engaged in politics. Attending meetings in village halls, discussing the future, thoughtfully. A tripling (as of today) of membership of the SNP. But one trend is very difficult to understand: in an independence debate of such importance lasting two years (or more), how can it be that there were almost no undisputed "facts?"
One side promised you would be £1400 a year better off if you voted their way; the other side said you would be £1000 a year better off if you voted their way. The oil is running out - no, there's plenty left. Joining the EU might be a problem - no, commonsense will prevail. Keep the pound? No problem - or a big problem? And so on. When I asked -- and I asked repeatedly -- various politicians how any ordinary person not an economist or oil expert could make sense of these supposed "facts" I was told it depends on whom you trust. Oh, I see. In the Enlightenment the great sages of Scotland weighed up the facts and then came to form an opinion. Now in the Enlightenment-in-Reverse do we form an opinion of whom we trust and then accept their "facts?" And what if -- as many of the Don't Knows presumably thought -- you decide that you do not entirely trust either campaign ...?
Wednesday, 8 October 2014
Reflections on the Revolution in Scotland
It's not a revolution of course - but the decision of 45% of Scots to vote for independence has created a new political dynamic whose end none of us can foresee. I travelled from Shetland in the north to the borders, Islay in the west to Edinburgh, Dundee and Aberdeen. One of the most memorable encounters was in Shetland. I tried to encourage an older local man to give away his political views.
"So is it Britain's oil?" I asked. "Or Scotland's oil. Or Shetland's oil."
Without missing a beat he said: "No, it's the oil companies oil." Then he added: "The bastards."
Tuesday, 7 October 2014
The lovely round church in Bowmore on the island of Islay ... why is the church round?
"So the Devil cannot hide in the corners."
Anti-Semitic Hate Mail for Presbyterians
I have been receiving anti-semitic hate mail over the past couple of years, which is a bit odd. I am a Presbyterian.
So were my parents, grandparents and -- as a recent genealogical study carried out by Strathclyde University informed me -- my family have been Presbyterian since the 17th century when -- as Protestant Lutherans during Germany's 30 Years War -- they fled southern Germany and came to Scotland and Ulster to find a home in a suitably Protestant land.
Perhaps sending anti-semitic hate mail to a Presbyterian is confirmation of something most of us already know: anti-semites, liked racists, are not just bigoted, but also tend to be very stupid. In my case, I receive roughly every 8 weeks or so a laser-printed and rather neat looking anonymous letter with a "Bath-Bristol-Taunton" postmark referring to Newsnight as "Jewsnight" and part of the "world wide Jewish conspiracy." Ho, hum. To my surprise, I am rather grateful to the dimwitted lunatic behind the letters, since he (I am sure it is a 'he') opens a window into what passes for the anti-semitic "mind" which would otherwise be closed to those of us who are not actually Jewish. Once in the United States sitting in the back seat of a van driven by two black friends I observed the suspicion with which they were regarded by some white people in Los Angeles. In a way, the West Country anti-semite, like the occasional LA white racist, actually has helped me understand what it must feel like to be discriminated against and the dangers of tolerating intolerance.
As for being a Presbyterian, well, I am certainly an ethnic Presybterian. I cannot escape my background growing up in Glasgow, Edinburgh and eventually in Northern Ireland. Even when I went through an atheistic phase I realised I was a Presbyterian atheist -- it was a Presbyterian God that I did not believe in.
So, if you happen to live in the Bath-Bristol-Taunton area and see someone posting standard white envelopes with a stick-on label addressed to me at BBC Newsnight, you could mention that while I am grateful to be reminded of the stupidities of anti-semitism, I don't nowadays feel the need to open the envelope before putting it in the trash. And that is the real problem.
It hurts my thrifty Presbyterian conscience to think that some poor anti-semitic dimwit is wasting his first class postage on me. Shalom.
Friday, 27 June 2014
Scotland the EU and Joining the Euro
This is from the European Commission website. It offers guidance on what happens when a new candidate member state to the EU seeks to join the European Union, and also the position affecting member states of the EU. It clearly states that two member countries have an opt-out on the euro: Denmark and the UK. Sweden does not have an opt out but has yet to fulfil all the criteria for joining the euro. Since an independent Scotland would not be either of the two opt-out countries, the presumption in the European Commission guidance is obvious. Here's a selection:
Adopting the euro:
The European Union grows as candidate countries meet the conditions for entry and accede to the Union – this process is known as enlargement. Similarly, the euro area is enlarging as non-euro-area EU Member States meet the conditions for entry and adopt the euro.
The euro area includes those EU Member States that have adopted the single currency. But the euro area is not static – under the Treaty, all EU Member States have to join the euro area once the necessary conditions are fulfilled, except Denmark and the United Kingdom which have negotiated an 'opt-out' clause that allows them to remain outside the euro area.
Sweden is also expected to join the euro area in the future, but has not yet qualified.
Progressive enlargement, progressive integration
An accession country that plans to join the Union must align many aspects of its society – social, economic and political – with those of EU Member States. Much of this alignment is aimed at ensuring that an accession country can operate successfully within the Union’s single market for goods, services, capital and labour – accession is a process of integration.
Adopting the euro and joining the euro area takes integration a step further – it is a process of much closer economic integration with the other euro-area Member States. Adopting the euro also demands extensive preparations; in particular it requires economic and legal convergence.
Bicycling Berlin Style
I’ve been cycling around Berlin for the past week, and I noticed something very strange. Car drivers, even the German equivalent of white van man, are very polite to cyclists. But that’s not all. The cyclists are very polite to each other, and to pedestrians. There is a cascade of on-the-road politeness, with the bus, car, van and lorry drivers giving way to those of us who are on bicycles, and the cyclists giving way to pedestrians.
It’s not perfect, but it works. It is certainly a lot better than the system in British or American cities where I have cycled and where cyclists can be extremely aggressive, trying to protect themselves and make sure drivers notice them. This cascade is one of on-the-road aggression, and it often makes British roads dangerous and bad tempered places. Of course there are cycle accidents in Berlin, but the city is much safer for those of us who like to be on two wheels. There are proper cycle lanes, properly enforced. In too many parts of Britain the cycle lanes are either non-existent or regarded as a joke.
Some British drivers regard cycle lanes as parking spaces.
Some local authorities seem to see cycle lanes as a bit of paint on the road and a sign, but not actually a means of transport.
There are places in London where the “cycle lanes” are actually a few metres long. Why would anyone want a “cycle lane” which goes from Nowhere to Nowhere?
After the war Berlin could clear the wreckage and plan for a different kind of city. London and other British cities have to change more organically. But the real difference between Berlin and London is the mind-set of everyone on the road. Even if we cannot re-plan our cities to make them more bike friendly, we could at least re-plan our brains. Here are three things to make life on our roads better and safer:
Teach every road user to give way to the weaker and slower. Car drivers should be taught as part of their driving instruction to let bicycles go ahead; cyclists should learn to let pedestrians have right of way. This would take much of the aggression out of cycling.
Make sure everyone understands bike lanes are not a joke. They are a public service. Give parking tickets to cars that park in them. Local councils which produce Cycle-Lanes-To-Nowhere should be forced to re-think.
Berlin has bendy buses and buses of other shapes too – but unlike London the bus drivers do not see bus lanes as their private preserve. Some bus drivers need to be taught that cyclists are legitimate road users. As a cyclist friend in the NHS put it to me once, “In London, the nickname for cyclists is: Organ Donors.”
Rant over. I’m off to cycle to the centre of Berlin. It should take me about 15 minutes. Oh, and unlike the UK, cyclists here get on their bikes wearing normal clothes. I have yet to see anyone in Berlin bicycling with bright yellow fluorescent tops like a Lemsip on two wheels. I wonder why?
Friday, 27 June 2014
The man in the middle said I had funny hair … I mean, really
Jimmy Wales - like him - not sure about Wikipedia …
Scotland's Shape Shifters
With Val McDermid at Edinburgh Festival
The Big Green Bookshop
A review of a talk I held at The Big Green Bookshop in December 2012:
Back in 1979 whilst I was at Warwick University, I went along to see a very much younger Jon Snow give a brilliant expose of what was happening behind the headlines in Nicaragua. That was a memorable experience that has stayed with me to this day.
I dared to hope that Esler might offer another memorable experience at The Big Green Bookshop tonight. I wasn't disappointed.
The evening's conversation and the Q&A that followed was around Mr Esler's latest book, "Lessons from the Top: How Successful Leaders Tell Stories to Get Ahead - And Stay There"
The book explores how leaders use stories to persuade and educate, and how sometimes they spectacularly fail to do so. It's based on decades of first-hand experience of interviewing world famous figures from Bill Clinton to Angelina Jolie.
Esler make his narrative against twenty-first century phenomena such the "confessional culture" and 24 hour news. He offered some insights on how leaders weave their stories, "We all tell stories, but I believe leaders who communicate well organise their stories into three parts: Who am I? Who are we? What is our common purpose? It's a rough guide to how just about everybody does it."
Apparently the book as written to offer lessons as much to you and me as to aspiring leaders of the future. It's a fascinating set of insights with some great lessons for us all.
I noticed one local aspiring leader in the audience and I'm genuinely interested to hear what he thought. Whilst I'll save him his blushes at this point, I'll drop him a note and ask him to share his reflections on the evening.
"It's really important for leaders (and everybody) to confront the things people are thinking about you".
On Gordon Brown: "Never one to miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity".
"Politicians submit to today's confessional culture because they feel it humanises them".
On journalists: "You're entitled to your own opinions but not your own facts".
Lessons From The Top - 23 July 2012
Interview with Profile Books about my book Lessons From The Top
Books For Breakfast: Lessons From The Top
BBC Newsnight presenter Gavin Esler has spent thirty years interviewing people who influence the world and listening to the incredible tales they tell; from Bill Clinton Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher to Angelina Jolie.
After almost seventy years the men of Bomber Command are finally to have their own official memorial. It's in the heart of London, near Buckingham Palace. Of the 125,000 'Bomber Boys' as they were called a total of 55,573 were killed -- almost one in two. The average age was as young as 22 years old, and for some of the volunteers the life expectancy was a mere six weeks from the start of the first mission.
The reason the memorial has taken so long? Unlike the Spitfire and Hurricane which were essentailly defensive fighters, the bombers were used to take the war to Germany. Inevitably there were many civilian casualties, as there were British civilian casualties of the Blitz. But with Britain excluded militarily from continental Europe until the invasion of Italy in 1943, the bombers were one way of taking the war to Hitler, as Churchill recognised. He said: "The fighters are our salvation but the bombers alone provide the means of victory." That inscription is inside the new memorial, but so is this: "This memorial also commemorates those of all nations who lost their lives in the bombing of 1939-1945."
It's an honour to be asked to deliver the commentary at the event for BBC Television. If the "Bomber Boys" had not done their job almost seventy years ago, I would not be doing my job now.
Wednesday, 27 June 2012
I was walking across a bridge over the river Spree in the heart of Berlin, hoping for a rare meeting with the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and thinking about a strange coincidence involving Germany and grand European projects.
Exactly five hundred years ago one of Europe's greatest thinkers was getting increasingly worried that good German money was being wasted. Cash was heading to the Mediterranean, subsidising a bunch of badly behaved foreigners. The 16th century German thinker was Martin Luther, and he was desperate to stay part of that great European project known as the Roman Catholic church, but equally desperate not to support those who were ripping off German believers to pay to build St Peter's in Rome. The unfairness of what he saw as abuses fed popular resentment until German patience finally snapped. Luther broke away from his beloved Catholic church, “protesting” in that great rebellion we know as the creation of Protestant-ism, the Reformation.
Paloma Picasso, a great woman who has been a strong guardian of P. Picasso.
Dolly Parton is one of the most shrewd businesswomen I have ever met, she has also got a very sharp political brain.
Angelina Jolie & terrible camera work
President Rafsanjani in his Tehran Palace.
John Berger Interview - 27 May 2011
John Berger Newsnight interview 27.05.2011
Donald Trump & the Business President
Donald Trump's apparent eagerness to run for the presidency of the United States enlivens the Republican race. But the history of big business tycoons getting into politics has not been encouraging for Mr Trump. Steve Forbes (of Forbes Magazine) flamed out a few years ago. Ross Perot was much more impressive in 1992, but still only managed 19% of the vote. In an AV system that would almost certainly have handed the presidency in 1992 to George H W Bush since Perot took more votes from Republican-leaning types than from Bill Clinton. But Perot ran as an independent. Trump may decide to try for the Republican nomination, though it will be a long hard road. Americans very often look to an "outsider" to save them from "politics as usual" and then when they take a close look at the "outsider" they usually decide to have another look at the professional politicians.
My alphabet book at Duddingston Primary, Edinburgh, began traditionally with "a is for apple", but when it came to "g", it was "g is for gas globe". This was in the late Fifties; there hadn't been gas globes for decades. The textbook must have been 30 or 40 years old! Whatever we say about the resources today, the good old days were bloody awful. Apart from that, it was a wonderful school. I loved both it and my first teacher, Miss Darling, an elderly lady in her last year of teaching.
Seamus Heaney. I've been a fan of his since I was a child ...
Javier Marias at home in Madrid
Amin Maalouf - his bulldog snored during our interview.
Gavin Esler - Power Play - 19 November 2010
All my novels start with the idea of a character put in an impossible position, rather than with a plot. Power Play started as an idea about a British ambassador to the United States torn between two countries that he loves, the UK and the USA, which he sees heading in opposite directions as the 'special relationship' suddenly becomes especially bad.
Asif Zardari Newsnight Interview
Gavin Esler interviews President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan on the BBC's Newsnight originally broadcast on 2nd of August 2010.
Film Director John Boorman
Simon Callow - his Dickens One Man show was extraordinary.