Political Profiles, By A Master Of The Art

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The political profile is a paradoxical thing, and that is part of its fascination. Power is rarely introspective: at its height it is usually unable to reflect or describe itself, and even at rest the last person you would ask for insight into the politician is the politician. But there comes a phase in political careers when the essential battles are over, when there is no message to stay on, but all is still recent enough to be vivid in the mind and to inform some part of the present day political contest. This is the moment that the eminent historian of government Peter Hennessy chooses to conduct the profiles that are collected in his new book Reflections: Conversations With Politicians.

First published on CapX: read more here

Eat A Crazy Salad In Kathmandu!

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You drop down through pewter clouds, down into a valley of green and brown with rivers like veins of mercury. Kathmandu! Even the name is powerfully magnetic, drawing in dreamers and crooks from every corner of the earth. Up until the 1950s the Kingdom of Nepal remained closed, a Himalayan mystery; today fifty dollars cash will buy anyone a visa at the airport, and you are off, down into the city that is a prodigy of every kind of pollution and intrigue and incense-wreathed enchantment.

First published on CapX: read more here

Drone Drama Comes Of Age

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Now the terrorists are on the screen in front of you, live, just as it happens. Their bombs are primed and ready for use, today. Their automatic weapons are loaded. Yet all the while above the jihadi house a Reaper drone circles at 20,000 feet, its missiles locked on to the very room where the suicide attack is being assembled. Out in the street civilians pass. Just feet from the bomb factory a young girl sells bread from a stall. Do you fire the missile?

First published on CapX: read more here

The Propaganda Game: Inside North Korea’s Dreamworld

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The Propaganda Game is a documentary film made inside North Korea that attempts to take that mysterious country’s version of reality at face value. Set mostly in the capital Pyongyang it shows North Koreans eating ice cream in the street, skateboarding in the park, and generally larking about during what seems to be a perpetual sunny Sunday afternoon. And strangely enough this approach ends up telling us more than any number of hard-edged news reports. Invited to tell their own story on their own terms the North Koreans reveal more than they intended.

First published on CapX: read more here

The Oscars: A Gambler’s Guide

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Heads up: the Oscars ceremony is on the last Sunday in February. By the end of the evening you can expect some serious surprises and some cruelly overlooked losers, accompanied by public emotions that will certainly be profuse and may even be real. By far the biggest deal of the night is the award for ‘Best Picture’. This is the only award that all the 6,000 or so Academy members can vote on, and it is also the award that has the biggest impact on current box office and future productions. Here’s the CapX guide to who might win Best Picture and why.

First published on CapX: read more here

City, Vanishing

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According to an account by Leonard Rauwolff, a German doctor and botanist who visited Aleppo around 1575, the following story was told (by a palace gardener) of Suleiman The Magnificent, the Ottoman emperor. Suleiman was being solicited by his advisors in Aleppo to drive the Jews from the empire. The emperor heard them out. And then ‘he bade them look upon a flower-pot, that held a quantity of fine flowers of divers colours, that was then in the room, and bid them consider whether each of them in their colour, did not set out the other the better and that if any of them should decay, or be taken away, whether it would not somewhat spoil the beauty of the rest.’

First published on CapX: read more here

Spotlight Deserves Several Oscars

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So far it is shaping up to be a big year for Oscar-nominated ‘true life’ stories in the cinema. This weekend following hard behind The Big Short comes Spotlight, a film about two great American institutions – the big city newspaper and the Catholic church. Spotlight is the name of the investigative desk at The Boston Globe, and the story is the almost incredible one of the highly organized involvement of the church hierarchy in concealing, even facilitating, the sexual abuse of hundreds of children over many years, and the work of the Globe’s team in uncovering the story. Almost incredible, except that it is now known to be true.

First published on CapX: read more here

Review: The Big Short

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Successful investors are lucky. With the kind of timing that most PR people can only ever dream of, Paramount Pictures has chosen a week when stock markets around the world have been in freefall for the UK release of The Big Short, which is a film about the last time that stock markets around the world were in freefall. Film-making itself is a form of high risk financial gambling, and to get that kind of result from your bet you need luck in abnormal quantities. The schedulers at Paramount have been so lucky that if you made a film about it, no one would believe your story.

First published on CapX: read more here

The Franchise Awakens

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The astonishing global success of Star Wars is a partly inexplicable phenomenon. Why is this sometimes entertaining but always derivative space opera the most valuable piece of intellectual property the world has ever seen? That mystery is now part of its success. Decade in and decade out audiences queue and queue again, as if to repeat the question. Too often they come away miserably traduced by yet another cynical marketing manoeuvre – and of course the mystery of Star Wars only deepens. Now with The Force Awakens we have the latest instalment of the ‘franchise’. Fans and anti-fans the world over are in their different ways braced for disaster. Just how bad can it get?

First published on CapX: read more here

The Mystery Of Haile Selassie

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In late January 1941 a party of soldiers and civilians crossed the border from Sudan into Italian-occupied Ethiopia. The men in uniform included British political advisors, some peculiar soldiers of fortune, and the shambling, eccentric and driven figure of Major Orde Wingate. There were priests of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in their robes, and a group of aloof Ethiopians who looked very far from home as they assembled for a ceremony in the dried-up riverbed. Among them there was a very small, black-bearded man of bearing, a man who the British had been referring to as ‘Mr Smith.’ This was Haile Selassie the First, The King of Kings, Emperor of Ethiopia. A few months earlier he had been living in straitened circumstances in a cold villa just outside Bath. Now, thanks to the machinations of war, he was on his way to Addis Ababa to reclaim the throne of the 225th monarch in the House of David, in one of the greatest comebacks of all time.

First published on CapX: read more here

Junk Bond

james-bond-1400x788You approach a new James Bond film with finely blended expectations of excitement and concern and dread. Excitement at the prospect of the second most expensive action film ever produced, concern at the health of a venerated British institution, and dread at the prospect of yet another prime turkey in the turkey-infested realm of the Bond franchise. So before we go any further let us address the turkey in the room: Spectre, the twenty-fourth film in the sequence, is a turkey. It is not an enormous great clucking monster turkey. It is just an ordinary medium turkey, the kind of turkey a middle-aged couple might order for a quiet Christmas at home without the children. How it managed to cost $300 million is anyone’s guess, but at that price it is certainly the most disappointing dinner for two in history.

First published on CapX: read more here

Russia’s World of Digital Control

red-web-1400x788In the English language the words ‘spy’ and ‘Russia’ are fellow travellers. The Russian state is secretive by nature and the methods of the secret state are the methods of the spy services: surveillance, interception, and information control. All of these techniques are part of the political management system of Putin’s Russia, and they have all been greatly enhanced in the last fifteen years. Thanks to two outstanding Russian journalists, Irina Borogan and Andrei Soldatov, we now know much more about how Russia uses and co-opts the worlds of digital communication and information flow to monitor its citizens at home, and shape their world view. On a recent visit to London, Borogan and Soldatov joined CapX for a conversation about their recent book The Red Web on Russia’s domestic programme of surveillance and censorship.

First published on CapX: read more here.

White Is The New Amber

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Edmund de Waal, a celebrated potter and ceramicist who had one of the literary hits of 2010 with his biographical memoir The Hare with Amber Eyes has now written a study of the remarkable history and nature of porcelain. De Waal has devoted much of his working life to porcelain, and this is not a mere history of the white ceramic that helped shape the wealth of nations from its discovery in China more than two thousand years ago. It is an attempt to capture the inner nature of porcelain, its power to mesmerise and to bankrupt its addicts.

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Is Capitalism a Good Thing?

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Capitalism: Money, Morals & Markets by John Plender

John Plender, a journalist on the Financial Times, has written a book about capitalism and whether it is a good thing – and that is taking ‘good’ in its broadest sense, to include ‘moral’ as well as ‘useful’. Now, there are those who would object that a journalist on the famously pink  paper is the last person who would know anything about capitalism. But let’s not cavil and trade insults like economists: Plender’s book, Capitalism: Money, Morals and Markets is a good thing, on balance, all things considered. And that is pretty much Plender’s verdict on capitalism.

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The Spook In The Machine

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Book Review: Intercept by Gordon Corera

Keeping secrets, sending secrets, stealing secrets: it’s a very ancient trade. The business of intercepting and deciphering communications has been going on for as long as people have had brains enough to profit from knowing more than their enemies. And today, as this bleakly entertaining new book from Gordon Corera reminds us, the branch of intelligence known as signals intelligence is now conducted on an industrial scale. The dream of the East German Stasi – that everyone should be spied on, all of the time – is close to becoming a nightmarish and universal reality.

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Meet the Baboons Who Broke the Banks

Llloyds-1-1400x788Book Review: Black Horse Ride by Ivan Fallon

On the Sunday of the ninth of September 2007 a meeting was called in the Treasury. It was, as they say, fateful – although none of the participants realised it at the time. That afternoon the course of the UK economy and political life was altered for years to come. If things had been decided differently there might have been no collapse of Northern Rock, no bank bailout, the Labour government might have emerged from the financial crisis with its reputation enhanced instead of ruined, and Gordon Brown might still be Prime Minister.

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The Dictator’s Cut

Omar-al-bashir-1400x788 (1)Four years ago the popular uprisings which optimists called the Arab Spring swept through North Africa. One after another dictatorial governments collapsed while populations danced in the public squares. But there was one striking regional exception. In Egypt’s southern neighbour Sudan which was and is ruled by a sour-faced soldier  called Omar Al-Bashir, there was rather little sign of revolution. A couple of demonstrations quickly started but equally quickly they were put to an end by Sudan’s uninhibited security services. As Field Marshal Al-Bashir himself grimly put it, ‘Anyone waiting for an Arab Spring in Sudan is going to be waiting a while.’

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The Mystery Of Marco Polo

Book Review: The Mysteries of the Marco Polo Maps by Benjamin B. Olshin, published by the University of Chicago Press

From The Spectator

AS a boy I spent quite a lot of my free time trying to fake up ancient-looking documents. This hopeless enterprise involved things like staining paper with tea or vinegar, together with plenty of burning, and creasing, and copying of random texts with a scratchy old inkwell pen. Typical silly small boy stuff. Reading this book on a collection of maps supposedly derived from Marco Polo suddenly brought it all back – especially the silliness.   

by Richard Walker

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How The World’s Newest Country Exploded

Book Review: A Poisonous Thorn In Our Hearts by James Copnall, published by Hurst & Co.

SUDAN – a country that ceased to exist in 2011 – is orindependence was one of the last untouristed wildernesses on earth. And for good reason: while it still existed it was the biggest country in Africa, a mainly flat and mainly uninhabitable wasteland, mostly brown, with barely a mountain or a bosky valley to its name, unbearably hot, unhealthy, poor, and full of every sort of trouble. And yet …

by Richard Walker

From The Spectator

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