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Ten Things That Are (Probably) Going to Happen in 2011

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Paul Mason | 09:25 UK time, Friday, 31 December 2010

I'll be appearing on the Radio 4 Correspondents Look Ahead programme tonight, repeated on New Year's Day (8pm 31 Dec, 1.10pm NYD). The idea is to make bold, unambigous predictions and be proved wrong a year later, getting ridiculed mercilessly by other journalists who actually know what they are talking about. In this spirit I will offer the following Pythian utterances for 2011 (and it goes without saying all kinds of unpredictable stuff will happen as well):

1. A Euro crisis
The markets will have a go at Spain and Portugal, also maybe Belgium. If Spain stands tough and the Euro-authorities back them, the bond vigilantes will turn with redoubled force and drive Greece out of the Euro. The EU leaders will, after dithering, create finally a shrunken but more stable Euro fiscal and political union, even to the point of creating a mini-Marshall plan for Ireland, which is a crucial quasi-offshore financial haven for the whole system.

2. A big cyber attack
Iran has already suffered one in 2010, and also Google. But with so much of the Western security apparatus being reoriented to finding (and launching) cyber attacks I suspect this is the year where we'll get the first big public, ie noticeable, cyber-skirmish between states.

3. Global commodity price inflation
The same combination is out there as in 2008. A tsunami of cheap money, real growth in demand for commodities in the emerging markets, hedge fund speculation and a gold bubble. What I can't predict is whether it will burst mid-year or not. Domestically, in the UK, it probably means they will not do QEII and will switch - probably after much political pressure - to hiking interest rates. (Oh, and Mervyn King will do an interview with Newsnight.)

4. The Sarah Palin bandwagon will stall
Power is too attractive for the career politicians of the American right to see this opportunity to beat Obama after one term thrown away. By December either Mitch Daniels or Marco Rubio (both quiet men with a grasp of statecraft) will have the big mo. If it is the former, I will shamelessly replay my 30 second walking setup shot of me and Mitch in the Indiana Capitol building, at every opportunity.

5. Economic crisis in Japan
I have lifted this straight out of the CEBR's predictions but it's been at the back of my mind for months. The economy is stagnant; debt is 200% of GDP, QEII has barely touched the problem and they are acutely susceptible to the rebalancing of the Asian economy.

6. Protectionism will return to the political agenda in Britain
Not since the 1970s has any British politician advocated protectionism and no mainstream leader will wake up on 1 Jan anything other than opposed to it: but with all three parties committed to rebalancing the UK economy they will learn that other countries are also rebalancing but using protectionist means: like Peter Mandelson they will become converts to tit-for-tat measures - above all, the unstated policy of a weak pound will be pursued. There will be a "signal moment" but I don't know what it will be.

7. A rash of Labour-aligned think-tanks will appear
Labour has learned that it lost the intellectual battle while in office to think tanks on the fringes of Conservatism - the Taxpayers Alliance, Migration Watch, Countryside Alliance, Policy Exchange etc. Funded by the unions it will create the equivalents - hardline fighters for core, "gut" Labour values - leaving the IPPR and Demos looking a bit like last year's thing.

8. The Chilcot Inquiry will drop a bombshell
The theory is, here among the hacks, that Chilcot has to be, for the Coalition, a moment of closure. For that its final report has to say something dramatic. The expectation is it will probably be harder on Blair and the JIC than it was originally expected to be, and also on the actual prosecution of the war and occupation. This will allow both the Coalition, the MoD, CDAS, the wider defence and intel community and also Ed Miliband to "move on" from Iraq.

9. Ukraine will be pulled decisively into the Russian orbit
Various bods who've seen the intel insist it is being relentlessly pulled into Putin's orbit, economically and politically, becoming highly hospitable to corruption and organised crime - and there's nothing the West can do. The West does not have enough will or unity to stage another standoff with Putin over a near-abroad country anytime in the near future. The EU and Nato will draw a line at the River Bug.

10. Finally, audaciously, because I've already said it on the recording of tonight's R4 programme....
The Coalition will fall. Not because of protest, not because of unpopularity but because everytime it tries to do something serious a bit falls off the machine. If they don't get AV and Vince Cable does not get radical banking reform, then by the time the public sector job losses are eating into their popularity, around party conference time, the Libdems will call it a day. Even more audaciously I will predict the outcome: no election but a Second Coalition to be formed between the Conservatives, an inner core of Orange Book Libdem leaders and various Unionists, with a slim majority. One or two Labour rightwingers, disgruntled by Ed Miliband, may also be tempted to join. Cameron will face down the Conservative right and embrace Coalition government as a modus operandi until 2015. Labour, locked in a policy review process and possibly still reeling from (8) above, will avoid an election.

Hit the Comments button - you know you want to! And let's hear your predictions too...

Images of 2010

Paul Mason | 10:21 UK time, Thursday, 30 December 2010

Election night programme: I prepare with Newsnight's lighting and sound technicians to the background of Greek riot pix

If I look back at my email inbox for the first working day of January 2010 it contains the ominous Sunday evening exchange with Labour HQ entitled: "Please register me for CX Presser" - CX meaning the then Chancellor, Alistair Darling. Darling was about to launch an attack on the Conservatives for promising to spend £35bn more than they could budget for:

"Until they explain how they will plug this £34bn gap in their list of promises, they cannot credibly say anything about what they'll do on the deficit," 
said Darling the next day.

Well in a year a lot has changed. There is no longer a gap in anybody's promises but a meticulously detailed plan to shrink state spending by £113bn. And Alistair Darling is no longer in office, and emails from Labour HQ no longer get an urgent response on a Sunday afternoon.

The first big highlight of the year for me was Davos. Following a bleak 3 hour train ride through Switzerland I got to stay in a kind of youth hostel at £200 a night and the privilege of hearing various rich and famous people flail around for ideas, punctuated by sessions "sponsored" by fragrant middle eastern monarchies extolling the values of classical music for the needy.

At a breakfast with Darling and Peter Mandelson - or rather at a non-breakfast which their aides had forgotten to order - it was impossible not to be distracted by the sight of two camo-clad Swiss snipers, on the roof behind the two ministers, cheerily trying to unfreeze the bolt on their Barrett Light 50, which had frozen overnight.

But Davos was notable for one event: the looming Greek budget crisis was evident. George Papandreaou and George Papaconstantinou were both there and, amid the weirdness and inconsequentiality, stood like rocks - amid the roiling surf of journos and flashbulbs - trying to exude the confidence they would need to save their country.

By February I was in Athens, on the streets with refuse collectors and dockers. "We're family men, we don't do social explosions," they told me. Papaconstantinou admitted to me that the country was basically corrupt.

But the Greek crisis dragged on: unbelievably the Eurozone's politicians simply failed to muster the will to act in time so by the time Alistair Darling and the Labour government came to be judged the real issue, for everybody except America and China, was the deficit.

Between the Greek crisis and the first mega Eurocrisis I got the chance to tour Britain asking the question "What's wrong and how do we fix it?" It was not a happy country. I went to Margate - where "whats wrong" turned out to be, for the English-born population, migration. I went to Stoke, where the problem was lack of money in the economy. I met Londoners preparing to emigrate. I travelled on a train to West Wales with the Welsh rugby fans on their way to a match in Dublin.

On the Arriva train to Carmarthen, the rugby fans were drinking lager at 11am but profoundly polite. They filled the carriage, sharing it with mums, kids and pensioners: every time one of their songs came to an f-word they left it out. Then they generously sang "Ireland Forever Standing Tall", "O Flower of Scotland" and of course "Mae Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau", completing their musical tour of the British Isles with: "I'd Rather Wear a Turban Than a Rose".

As the election kicked off somebody high up in the Labour Party leaked me an important, as they thought, radical demand, demonstrating Labour's new commitment to its voting base: a "Cadbury's Law" to prevent predatory foreign takeovers of British firms. I will always remember the repeated phonecalls that night, right down to the wire, from senior Labour press officers: "We're steering you away from Cadbury's Law; you will look very foolish if you mention Cadbury's Law." That's what all governments seem to end up like, in the end.

When we consult the record of Twitter on the night of the first leaders' debate I think we may find I was one of the first journalists to use the word "Cleggmania": I tweeted it seconds after the debate ended, because I was following various realtime graphs showing floating voters' responses. Wow, was the response. As I said at the time, Clegg simply demonstrated he was the kind of bloke who might know somebody with a nose stud.

I was in the BBC's Millbank newsroom when that other memorable moment happened: we were all watching live as Gordon Brown was played back his exchange with Gillian Duffy. There was a collective groan - not of sympathy, I assure you; nor were there any whoops of delight: it was just like seeing Mohammed Ali floored at the end of his career only this time by a self-inflicted punch.

Post-Election weekend was a blur. Though in constant contact with various people involved in setting up the Coalition, at one point filming myself sprinting backwards shouting questions at Danny Alexander, also sprinting, down Whitehall - the main event was going on in Brussels, where Sarkozy was banging the table to try and save the Euro. This story famously got three minutes on Newsnight on the crucial day because there was so much drama in the election itself.

But the story would not go away. Deficit reduction set the agenda for the Coalition - indeed formed it.

That summer something unprecedented happened: Labour politicians who had risen to power without ever having to be nice to anybody suddenly had to be nice to a lot of people, including journalists. You could suddenly discuss things rationally with people who had confronted you from behind an Uruk-hai-like phalanx of advisers and spin-doctors. Other scarpered, never to be seen again until their memoirs came out.

During the post-election downtime I went for a refresher on the BBC's compulsory hostile environment course. Though what happens on that course has to remain secret, it is grueling and sometimes emotionally shocking and it reinforced my conviction that any politician who proposes to begin any kind of conflict - and I mean rebels, "community leaders", activists etc as well as Defence Ministers - should first go on that course and see what the collateral damage of conflict feels like.

Jessie Carolina and the Hot Mess perform in Washington Square NYC. It was the year of the retro photo app (other apps are available)

Looking back over my diary this summer technology changes loomed large. I got Freesat installed, discovering true HD; I fell victim to the volcano cloud, missing a book launch in Perugia but doing the meeting remotely from my living room via Skype. Finally I handed back my BBC Blackberry and got an iPhone, convinced by my wife's Googlephone that the age of the unlocked, uncorporate device was irresistible. The iPhone opened a world of realtime publishing: I twittered more than I blogged by the end of the year; my jogging runs are pathetically logged in real time on my Facebook page; I took photos of my Gary Indiana trip using Hipstamatic - we will all have one of those stylized scratched, 50s-era photos of ourselves to look back on and remember 2010, thinking - "why did we do that?" (as in this photo of Jessy Carolina and the Hot Mess, a band I stumbled on in Washington Square, right).

In July I remember a tetchy press conference exchange with the bosses of the Euro bank regulator as they launched their "stress tests": few journalists in the room felt the tests were worth the paper they were printed on and so it turned out. By the year's end the two Irish banks that had passed the test were to be nationalized, busted by the very thing the Eurobankers had refused to test for - the inter-action between sovereign debt and banking solvency where the banks are propped up by the state.

I'd been to Spain to document its debt woes, getting hauled in by the Spanish embassy to discuss my various misconceptions thereafter. Indeed Spain will be the crucial country in 2011 - because its politicians will either stop the rot on sovereign debt or succumb to it. They will have to be the legion that does not break, otherwise the Euro will. It's as simple as that.

After the Spain trip I made elaborate plans for a pan-European filming trip to explore the crisis there - but we ditched at short notice and re-allocated the whole project to the USA: I was becoming convinced that the Obama fiscal stimulus wasn't working and that, while the coverage of the Teaparty movement was finally getting near the roots of the discontent, it needed to be covered in depth, on the ground, looking at the social and economic conflict from both sides.

We set off into the deserted ruins of the former-industrial powerhouse of Gary, Indiana, documenting for a week the simple and prosaic failures of the Obama administration's economic strategy. I got to hear Glenn Beck deliver a 90 minute unscripted speech. We went to Georgia and Tennessee, exploring the layers of history and animosity that underpin the new sharpness in American politics. "Much of America," said one of my editors, glumly, reviewing the footage, "is basically a museum of the 20th century".

October-November were the months where reality finally bit into the post-election euphoria. Cleggmania evaporated; much of the social-liberal wing of the Conservatives, around Letwin and Maude, went quiet as the full realization hit everbody as to the sheer scale of fiscal retrenchment they had unleashed. The Big Society, inevitably, got turned around as a slogan by the government's opponents.

I remember watching Ed Miliband's stony, stunned face as he came out of the briefing room knowing he had won: a face that did not become any less stunned as he tried to deliver a speech, the implication of which was that Labour had spent the past decade going in the wrong direction. Listening to the reception to Ed Miliband's speeches, and hearing the incessant buzz of discontent among Labour members and MPs as autumn turned to winter, it became clear what an uphill task he has. Like Clegg he will probably have to reinvent the party he leads, finding a whole new set of people who agree with what he is doing now, rather than what the party stood for before.

The last two big events of the year, for me, came hard on each other's heels: Ireland and the student movement.

We sensed early that Ireland was in deep trouble and hauled the finance minister Brian Lenihan onto Newsnight to assure Jeremy Paxman that there would be no EU bailout needed. Then, over the weekend, my BBC colleague Joe Lynam broke the story that the bailout was, indeed, in process. We all rushed to Brussels for more stalling, stonewalling and denials from the Eurozone's panjandrums, whose performance on public platforms was commensurate with that of a cadre of officials who do not need to be elected.

Inbetween the Lenihan interview and Brussels I put my feet up on the sofa and switched on the Newschannel, only to see people smashing Millbank Tower. It was pretty obvious something big was happening - and not only from the level of violence and the policing failures on the day: a student occupation movement had begun that would, by the year's end, create a whole new zeitgeist in politics, finishing off Cleggmania and sparking a new cultural debate in the British intelligentsia. Even now there are arts movements, music, manifestoes, comedy etc being created that will probably shape British culture long after the exact events of Day X (10 November) become misty.

I ended up reporting on both the occupation movement and the final riotous student demo outside Parliament. I've been on many demos and public order situations and this was, on a scale of 1-10, about 7 in terms of violence at the point of conflict - despite the fact that the majority went with non-violent intent. It also, as I noted a few hours later, marked the entry of British "estate dwelling youth" into political protest. Basically the concept arts groups from the Slade and Goldsmiths found themselves dancing by the firelight of a vandalized bench with kids whose music is largely banned from all but pirate radio, and to whom enmity with the cops is not some shocking, new thing.

And that's the year. We switched from an entrenched, fearsomely efficient Labour political establishment to an initially laid-back Coalition who, in the early days were able to go to work by pushbike but who now have to have their party HQs guarded against arson attacks, and worry about stuff that comes through their letterbox.

The Euro crisis was stupendous and is not over. The incapacity of some of Europe's leaders equally stupendous.

America, a country full of friendship and warmth to outsiders - even ones like me who ask annoying questions - is angry with itself, and may yet tear itself apart politically.

Culturally I have seen some masterpieces: Bryn Terfel in Die Meistersinger at the Proms; the Gauguin exhibition at Tate Modern, vividly demonstrating how beautiful life can be once you give up stockbroking and chill out on an island; Mark Rylance mesmerizing once again in the revival of Jerusalem.

I've also been frustrated by the paucity of decent TV drama (ADD: I should have said "Jimmy McGovern excepted"); the predictability of much of what's on stage in Britain - and I mean the subsidized artistic theatre, not the West End. Few new novels have grabbed me: my book of the year is Stefan Zweig's autobiography - The World of Yesterday - which is a haunting account of the run up to both World Wars of the 20th century: and of the cultural revolution Europe went through in the last great period of globalization and individual freedom.

I'm ending the year with a strong desire for something to blow away the cultural cobwebs of Britain: its press dominated by the obsessions of middle aged men in cardigans; its TV drama stuck in a tawdry rut; its cultural establishment entranced by various overhyped novelists and concept artists; its bookshop windows full of the re-hashed tales of yesteryear.

As a journalist, a year's work gives you a privileged front seat at the spectacle of history. But if I think back through everything I have seen, nothing beats the seals and dolphins swimming through Ramsay Sound, Pembrokeshire, oblivious to the manias and fretfulness of human life, sentient only of the flows and currents of their freezing tidal raceway.

A peregrine on the Welsh coastline

End-of-year interviews: John Maynard Keynes

Paul Mason | 11:14 UK time, Wednesday, 29 December 2010

I didn't recognise him at first because of the jumper: it was more like a duffle coat knitted with red-gold-and-green wool. But you couldn't mistake that wide smile, that febrile top lip, those limpid eyes.

He'd been wandering around Bloomsbury for days unchallenged, popping into the occupations at UCL, the Slade, King's and the LSE to deliver impromptu "teach-ins". Some people later claimed to me that they'd recognised him, but put it down to ketamine and sleeplessness: "Dude, that guy looks just like Keynes, no?"

But it really was him and - after a lot of "no really I mustn't" and muttering at the floor and checking his watch he consented to the interview. I dragged him to a quiet table at the back of Wright's Bar on Houghton Street. The voice recording is deleted now so you'll just have to imagine the soft "r" and the Cambridge drawl:

Are we out of the crisis? I begin.

"Good lord my dear boy we are hardly into it. We have no view into the future in the afterlife but I think it's pretty much following the same path as before, though obviously with the caveat that the forces of globalisation place a major brake, or perhaps more like a restraining leash, on the course its taking."

So if it's following the same path, what year are we in? 1931, '32?

"Its actually remarkably on schedule. You've had the panic phase, then the phase of 'it's going to be alright' and now you're getting the phase where countries try to offload the cost onto each other. We're not yet at the Credit Anstalt moment but you could read the Irish banking bailout as that if you wanted. As I say, it's all mediated by the state throwing a fire blanket, as it were, across the flames. The state has proved remarkably useful."

I notice a tone, signalling disinterest:

You don't sound like your majorly focused on this, Lord Keynes?

"Yes," he sighs: "Economics is a poor business. Dismal does not describe the half of it, don't you think? I mean - bear in mind that, for myself, I've had to watch my entire theory becoming a kind of handbook for bureaucracy in the mid-20th century, then become vilified, and now revived as a kind of emergency defibrillating device by people who thought heart attacks had become impossible..."

"So you buy the Hutton thesis: that the Keynesian revolution didn't happen, that Samuelson..."

"Oh, please, don't get me going on Samuelson... I mean, really, thermodynamics?"

And he waves his hand and makes a pleading grimace and I stop, beginning again after he has ordered a bacon sandwich.

If it's a crisis of freemarket economics, surely some form of Keynesianism should be in the ascendant? I ask:

"If this really were 1931 and we really were playing it all through the first time I might say yes. But actually you've now got the crisis of Keynesianism as well. Nothing's really working - for the West at least, and yet for the East everything is working. So they've got to think it through. The battle is with the head, not the fists, as I said in the 1920s.

"You don't yet have a fully formed solution so put on your thinking cap. They need to sit down and envisage the world as it should be when the crisis abates: to think gigantic and ambitious thoughts about a world system that can contain and encompass fiat currencies and global finance. It's doable but it will take time."

Any comments on modern Liberalism? I venture.

"It's basically Asquith versus Lloyd-George all over again and in reverse - only this time there is no Lloyd-George. Mr Cable - who cuts a fine figure in that fedora don't you think? - was not a whole-hearted stand-in and is in any case now, as it says in the papers, toast. And when I say in reverse I mean they are progressing from the social liberalism of our Yellow Book days back to a kind of pre-Beveridge, almost quintessentially Asquithian view of the state. Doesn't it seem that way to you?"

I make a mental note read up on Asquthianism when I get time.

So who would you say are the great Keynesians of today?

"Hu Jin-Tao, for definite. Lula, obviously. Mervyn King - unlikely contender but a superb practitioner of undeclared currency manipulation and monetary stimulus - and Goh Chok Tong of course..."

I look blank.

"Central bank boss of Singapore, ran the country in the nineties. Quite liberal on gay rights. You know," he looks around Wright's furtively, "the whole of London is one big happy hunting ground for Singapore right now: science boffin only has to pop up with some kind of research and, there, instead of some lamentable English venture capitalist, in the front row, quietly writing out a blank cheque, will be some fellow from the Singapore technology fund. Now that really is Keynesianism. They even have an Arts Council."

So the future's in state capitalism and the emerging markets?

He goes sotto voce:

"If I were not merely an ethereal presence, but able to invest actual pounds and pence, that is where my money would be going," he taps his nose, "however..."

- following a dramatic pause -

"...the real issue is human freedom. That is a need they cannot currently satisfy and where the West retains its advantage. It's what's drawn me here..."

He makes an expansive wave at the outside world: Houghton Street thronged with students, Bush House in the pre-Christmas gloom, a poster of Robert Lindsay starring in Onassis at the Novello.

"These young people, misguided though they may be as to fiscal reality, and crude in method, are actually attempting to live the kind of life we Bloomsbury Group-ers tried to live: but technology and permissiveness allows them to succeed, dear boy, and if you know where to look - quite spectacularly."

You've discovered the London nightlife?

"Thanks to my new friends I am what they call 'gay disco royalty'; my twitterfeed is heavily subscribed; I have become, unlike you, expert in distinguishing Grime music from Dubstep and I am also heavily involved with the writers of the Nomadic Hive Manifesto - of which I can see from your expression you have not heard. It is entitled 'Beeing and Nothingness' and begins..."

"You mean you're taking this bunch of hipsters seriously?" I explode.

"They've done what every generation since the 1930s tried to do: sideline the socialists and rediscover 19th century liberalism!"

"'Bee tolerant, Bee deterritorialised' as the Hive manifesto declares. The space of the individual has expanded, the space of the collective diminished. That is the real economic revolution of your time and its entirely determined by technology and the rapidity of human development. As to the rest, they will grow out of it..."

So what's your current project?

"It's difficult to have long term projects when you're ethereal old chap but if you remember we ran Charleston Farmhouse as a kind of liberal commune, Duncan and Vanessa, Virginia and Leonard... et al." His eyebrows leap impishly; "Something along those lines would, um, er, appeal."

A liberated space on the Sussex downs. It would be almost mainstream now, I chuckle, but how would you fund it?

His gimlet eyes light up and his brows beetle; he lasers me with a look of cruel certainty:

"A massive leveraged one way bet on commodities, dear chap, out by the end of August 2011 when the bubble bursts - plus a side-bet on Euro-Dollar parity by 2012."

The Master has, albeit briefly, returned.

Idle Scrawl's "Fifty Books That Are Books"

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Paul Mason | 13:51 UK time, Saturday, 18 December 2010

Earlier I relaunched a mental exercise first started by Hollywood scriptwriter and columnist Ben Hecht in the 1930s. You have to make a list of the 50 books you would have bound and put in a library if that was all you could have.

The key is to do it from memory. No internet, no Googling, no peer pressure: in an ideal world you sit down in an empty room with a typewriter and a bottle of something and hammer out the list. Here is mine (actually I have cheated and looked up some titles on the internet, and I wrote on a computer).

Hecht annotated each entry, I'll do it in groups of ten:

1. Life And Fate, Vasily Grossman.
2. Gravity's Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon
3. Sentimental Education, Gustave Flaubert
4. War And Peace, Leo Tolstoy
5. A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
6. Nineteen Eighty Four, George Orwell
7. Ulysses, James Joyce
8. Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackeray
9. Germinal, Emile Zola
10. The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien

These are the "big books", the ones where all life is there; there's nearly always a love affair blighted by a vast social conflict; the writer creates the entire world, using a giant canvas, yet captures the essence of being human (or Elven) and it stays real inside your head for the rest of your life.

If I sit and think about the striking images, scenes I have actually "seen" vividly off the printed page, these are the books they usually come from: Novikov launching the tank attack at Stalingrad; Pirate Prentice making a banana breakfast for his SOE buddies; the students linking arms at the Pantheon as history suddenly interrupts Frederic Moreau's pursuit of Mme Arnoux; stately, plump Buck Mulligan...

11. The Classical Style, Charles Rosen
12. Crime and Punishment, Feodor Dostoyevsky
13. The Civil War, Shelby Foote
14. Nights at the Circus, Angela Carter
15. Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe
16. Dispatches, Michael Herr
17. More Than Somewhat, Damon Runyon
18. Moby Dick, Herman Melville
19. Red Shelley, Paul Foot
20. John Maynard Keynes, Robert Skidelsky

A bunch of books that help you orientate yourself in the world and understand its dynamics. I particularly treasure my hardback edition of the Runyon because it contains cartoons showing with what ribaldry we are supposed to enjoy these stories - there is a drawing of two dodgy Great White Way characters even on the cover of the book. Rosen's treatise on Haydn/Mozart/Beethoven influenced my whole understanding of classical music. Skidelsky's book on Keynes is really a biography of the English Liberal middle classes and a history of the mid-20th century.

21. The Alexandria Quartet, Lawrence Durrell
22. Lady Chatterley's Lover, DH Lawrence
23. The World of Yesterday, Stefan Zweig
24. On The Road, Jack Kerouac (or if you can't stand it, Big Sur)
25. The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
26. The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy
27. Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
28. The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith, Peter Carey
29. Big Breasts And Wide Hips, Mo Yan

These are novels and a couple of memoirs that mainly focus on the subject of the self, the senses, mania. By authors in love with language.

31. Collected Poems, Dylan Thomas
32. Poems 1913-1956, Bertholdt Brecht
33. Milton's Poetical Works
34. Complete Poems and Selected Letters, John Keats
35. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare
36. The Thief's Journal, Jean Genet
37. Amerika, Franz Kafka
38. The Good War, Studs Terkel
39. Iron In The Soul, Jean-Paul Sartre
40. A Capote Reader (including Breakfast at Tiffany's) Truman Capote

A mixture of the obvious heavy poetry and drama you would want to be able to dip into, a completely personal choice here, plus some mid-20th century writers who really grab me. A little bit influenced by Thornleigh Salesian College, Bolton - as my former schoolmates will attest.

The last ten is very difficult because it comes down to hard choices, and they will just have to be self-explanatory:

41. Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte
42. The Black Jacobins, CLR James
43. Vineland, Thomas Pynchon
44. Dune, Frank Herbert
45. The Portable Hannah Arendt
46. Another Country, James Baldwin
47. The Odyssey, Homer
48. Surveys From Exile, Karl Marx
49. Nana, Emile Zola
50. Something by Victor Serge but I can't decide between his memoirs and one of his novels...

That's it - I won't revise it. There is an obvious bias towards male over female writers; an obvious bias to the mid-20th century, English and American "lit".

I am not claiming these are the 50 greatest books ever, and I am certainly open to argument; I know there's a desert of non-English books, nothing about science and it's all a bit redolent of a bloke who went to a Catholic grammar school sometime in the 1970s. To my surprise there are two Zolas, but I am not surprised that I have succumbed to two Pynchons since these are two of my favourite books of all time. I still don't know how Baldwin's Another Country got in there, but it won't go away.

I don't think I have broken Hecht's rule of nothing from the last 10 years but if I could it would be:

51. Snow, Orhan Pamuk
52. Underworld, Don DeLillo

Wierdly there's not a single overlap with Hecht's list - although there is also a high degree of overlap with the lists my commenters posted under the original call for lists. If you're only going to read one that you've never read before, try either (a chorizo) Life and Fate or (shorter and funnier) Vineland.

We're all products of our age really.

* Keep your lists coming and I might compile a best-of-Idle-Scrawl-commenters reading list. The blog will be sporadically active over the Xmas break - I will do something on the Euro and a review of the year/preview of what's to come. Newsnight is off the air until 4 January.

9.12.2010: Dubstep rebellion - the British banlieue comes to Millbank

Paul Mason | 19:15 UK time, Thursday, 9 December 2010

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1930: They marched to parliament square, got stopped, surged through police lines and trampled onto the grass that had been so painstakingly regrown after the eviction of the peace camp. And then they danced.

The man in charge of the sound system was from an eco-farm, he told me, and had been trying to play "politically right on reggae"; however a crowd in which the oldest person was maybe seventeen took over the crucial jack plug, inserted it into aBlackberry, (iPhones are out for this demographic) and pumped out the dubstep.

Young men, mainly black, grabbed each other around the head and formed a surging dance to the digital beat lit, as the light failed, by the distinctly analog light of a bench they had set on fire.

Any idea that you are dealing with Lacan-reading hipsters from Spitalfields on this demo is mistaken.

While a good half of the march was undergraduates from the most militant college occupations - UCL, SOAS, Leeds, Sussex - the really stunning phenomenon, politically, was the presence of youth: bainlieue-style youth from Croydon, Peckam, the council estates of Islington.

Having been very close to the front line of the fighting, on the protesters side, I would say that at its height - again - it broke the media stereotype of being organised by "political groups": there was an anarchist black bloc contingent, there were the socialist left groups - but above all, again, I would say the main offensive actions taken to break through police lines were done by small groups of young men who dressed a lot more like the older brothers of the dubsteppers.

The fighting itself is still going on - I am seeing people break the windows of HM Revenue and Customs live on TV. At one point after 2pm there were just two lines of riot cops between the students and parliament and it was at this point, with nowhere to go, that people began to push forward and attack the police.

Despite that, those involved were a minority and it was fairly "ritual" involving placard sticks and the remains of the metal fence around Parliament Square, until people realised there was nowhere to break through *to* and changed direction.

I saw them swarm up Victoria Street, at first pushing back a line of mounted police and breaking through various attempts by riot police to form a cordon. But then in successive charges, both the mounted and the foot police charged back.

I saw heavy objects land among the police, amid a much larger volume of paint, fireworks and flashbangs. At one point the horses were unable to contain this and a policeman fell off his horse, being carried away on a stretcher by colleagues. Later the police - who were themselves trapped between two lines of protesters, lost control of their own rear and only contained the breakthrough by batoning people to the floor, including women. By the side of a pub in a nearby street there was a line if injured protesters being triaged by ambulance crews.

By this point many of the seasoned occupiers had moved out of Parliament Square and some were returning to their occupations to discuss where the campaign goes next.

I have seen a lot of public disorder in this part of London over the past 30 years. As a riot it was sporadic; one notable feature is that, while many protesters fight wearing masks, many do not: there is an air of "don't care" - especially among the school students.

Politically, there is an almost total disconnect with the established parties: they had not bothered to send their representatives there - there were a few NUS national officials but no kind of Labour student presence that I could see.

When there are speeches, the university students often defer to the working class young people from sixth forms, who they see as being the main victims of the reform. With the Coalition's majority reduced by 3/4, as I reflected earlier, it is unprecedented to see a government teeter before a movement in whom the iconic voices are sixteen and seventeen year old women, and whose anthems are mainly dubstep.

Police at times struggle to contain protesters

Paul Mason | 16:18 UK time, Thursday, 9 December 2010

It's 4:05pm with less than an hour to go to the parliamentary vote. There have been serious clashes between protesters and police just outside Westminster Abbey.

I saw protesters throw paint, sticks and other objects at riot police and mounted police who at times struggled to contain them.

One policeman has been taken away on a stretcher and one woman was knocked to the ground by police with batons, but was able to walk away just five minutes later.

It has calmed down now as those inside Parliament Square realise they are trapped, but there is a lot of anger amongst the protesters. Police are making sporadic arrests.

It is fair to say that any distinction between so-called politically motivated groups and the bigger mass of quite young teenage students, if it ever existed, is pretty indistinct.

As I write this another policeman is being carried away by stretcher and there are police on horses charging in Parliament Square.

There is a big gap between the university and the school students

Paul Mason | 14:08 UK time, Thursday, 9 December 2010

It is 1:50pm and the march has reached Parliament Square. There is really only one story at this march and that is the sheer volume of school students on it.

Some even claim to have occupied their schools overnight.

Sociologically you can feel the very big gap that exists between the university students and those at school because the people protesting from school include large numbers who would have been hard pushed to go to university anyway.

As I write I see the beginnings of trouble on the edges of the crowd and there is a very clear sense from some of the 16 and 17-year-olds that they are part of a rebellion.

I am standing about 100 yards from parliament, with the vote due in three hours, and I can not ever remember a moment in politics where a parliamentary majority petered due to the actions of 16-year-old girls.

What are your "50 Books That Are Books"?

Paul Mason | 22:29 UK time, Saturday, 4 December 2010

Time is cruel because it reduces you to your essence.

Ben Hecht was, essentially, the man who wrote the screenplays for several fast-talking Hollywood masterpieces about urban life, one of which - His Girl Friday - is a cult movie for everyone who practises or aspires to practise the profession of journalism.

But there was depth to Hecht: he wrote novels; he was a news reporter in the bleak Germany of 1919-21; he - like Runyon - sought out and knew the low-life people of his age; he supported the Irgun against the Brits in Palestine; he wrote a musical with Kurt Weill.

One other thing he did was write an article called "Fifty Books That Are Books", in which without visiting his own bookshelves, he sat down at a typewriter and listed the 50 books you should have in a library if that was all you were allowed.

In the spirit of Christmas and all the other holidays I propose to Idle Scrawl's readers that they post their own, following the style of Hecht, here, in the Comments.

The key is to do it from memory - in the name of which I offer you this from the 1910 newspaper column by Hecht about Christmas/Channukah in Chicago:

"We once lived in a world of toys. In a world of adventure. In a world of strange
thoughts and weird imaginings. Adventure, thoughts and imaginings were toys like these. Yes, these toys have souls because we remember that they meant
something, were something.

What is it they meant and were?

But we've forgotten that. Almost. And the crowd of men and women shuffle up and down the aisles and down the streets outside. The holidays bring them all an identical gift. The holidays bring them the gift of memory."

So: post your 50 book comments. I will try and compile a list of the most commonly chosen on Christmas Eve so anybody bored enough to be reading then can download it. The only rule is that like Hecht you cannot consult your shelves or the internet.

Student movement: the debate rages (with Zenlike calm)

Post categories:

Paul Mason | 09:30 UK time, Thursday, 2 December 2010

I covered the student occupation movement on Newsnight last night, from within the occupied Brunei Gallery at SOAS. That was followed by a lively debate in the studio afterwards, and the intensity of discussion in the studio was matched by that on Twitter, which was so vituperative that my iPhone nearly melted.

It's in marked contrast to the atmosphere at the student mass meetings: here, very unlike 30 years ago, all interventions are delivered in a calm, flat, deliberately reasoned tone. Anybody who sounds like a career politician, or anybody who attempts rhetoric, or anybody whose emotions overtake them is greeted with a visceral distaste.

This form of discourse is lifted directly from the anti-globalisation movement, complete with that hand shaking gesture to show assent without adding vocal encouragement, which we used to call cheering.

I don't know if it is better or worse than in the ideologised conflicts of the past.

It's better in the sense that it is less male dominated, and organised groups have to come over as individuals rather than monoliths with a party line, so the nuances of debate come out and people genuinely change their minds; it is worse in the sense that the deliberate creation of a restrained, unemotional atmosphere militates against clear meaning and does not exactly promote the idea of human greatness. (I wonder how a speech by Churchill, or Nye Bevan, would have gone down at one of these meetings).

In the end, the emotionless discourse may be the product of the central fact that hits you in the face when you report modern protests in Britain (and this phenomenon stops once you get to Ireland, France or the USA so it really is a Brit thing): there is no ideology driving it and no coherent vision of an alternative society.

This is what separates the modern student movement from its predecessor in the 1960s.

And the point is, even if you decry what the LSE students in 1968 thought they were fighting for, their generation really did shape its own destiny. The fact that the SOAS occupation mini-library is full of Derrida, Nietszche, Lacan, Fanon etc - and indeed so would be the official reading list of many courses - is a product of the great intellectual ferment of 68 and after. Ditto the "quiet prayer space" the students have created, even though the students of 68 would have laughed at it.

It raises the general political question - for both left and right in this technocratic age of "what works", "fairness" and political "blank sheets of paper": can you really shape history without an ideal?

I think also, on reflection, there is another reason why people are so restrained and un-ideological. Because the potential for damage arising from conflict appears to be larger now than before. The demos, when they get violent, immediately become more violent on both sides - check out the Youtube footage - than anything in the 1960s. So - like in America where there is no violence on the streets until there is shooting - you get restraint and then it snaps. So people go a long way to avoid it snapping.

So anyway, for now, feel free to hit the comment button on the pros and cons of the fee increases, the rights and wrongs of the student movement, and reasoned thoughts on where it's all going.

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