March 2009


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Hot on the heels of brainless Government plans to teach Wikipedia and Twitter in primary schools, Birmingham City University has upped the ante and launched a £4,000 MA in social networking.

Described as “very relevant and very scholarly” by convenor Jon Hickman, the course offers field-trips – perhaps to internet cafes – along with seminars and “research workshops”. The blurb says:

Birmingham has a thriving social media scene and this scene is fast becoming an industry. It is therefore wholly appropriate that this programme should be based within Birmingham School of Media, where students will have access to a peer group and active community of social media practitioners.

£4,000 sounds rather a steep price to be introduced to a roomfull of people who have MySpace. I’m also not sure how much scholarship you can fit into 140 characters on Twitter. The only consolation is that anyone gormless enough to pay probably is in real need of “access to a peer group”.

 

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These occasional encounters between Harriet Harman and William Hague at PMQs make you wish Gordon Brown would go on holiday more often. It’s like watching a brainless sitcom in the middle of endless news bulletins, or seeing the clowns wander in halfway through a Shakespearean tragedy.

Reliably, today’s joust was high on comedy factor and low on substance. William enjoyed himself; Harriet was cross. This unchanging formula is the basis of every episode. While – like Men Behaving Badly – it starts to get rather worn after a while, you can always be guaranteed a few juvenile laughs.

Things picked up where they left off last time, with Hague asking about the Working Capital Scheme. The scheme is essentially a bit of PR tat which was kicked out by the Labour spin machine last year and forgotten about, making it a useful thorn for the Tories to wiggle once in a while. Harman doggedly refused to answer the question, reeling out the textbook ‘do-nothing party’ riposte with such passion you get the impression she actually believes it’s a useful response.

As usual Hague landed a couple of funny blows, at one point painting a picture of Gordon Brown unpacking his Speedos on a South American beach and pointing out that “inheritance must preoccupy the niece of the Countess of Longford” when Harman brought up tax. You just know there are plenty of Labour backbenchers tittering along with these kinds of jibes.

The fact that these exchanges of puerility are such a welcome break from the usual Brown/Cameron drudgery does say something about the level of national debate, though. When Chuka Ummuna came to talk to our City class a month ago he was all for scrapping PMQs and replacing it with something more likely to fire useful discussion. At the time I dismissed this as nonsense. But in the long term there has to be a more constructive way than this.

Inspired by my interview with up-and-coming author Joe Dunthorne this week, I decided to make an audio slideshow layering his comments over some images of Village Underground where he works. He talks about writing Submarine, his first novel, and why he doesn’t draw much literary inspiration from Shoreditch.

This week I met Joe Dunthorne, the hotly tipped young author whose debut novel Submarine has been nominated for multiple awards. He talks about Shoreditch, Shakespeare and why he likes working on top of a massage parlour.

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Joe Dunthorne has just got back from a tour of Somerset’s hippy communes. Sitting in the converted London Underground train that serves as his workshop high above Great Eastern Street, he tucks his blond hair behind his ears and laughs.

 

“I went to one that was just amazing,” he enthuses. “They had their own orchard, their own cider press, their own steam powered log cutter for chopping wood. There was a group of kids running about making mud pies, wearing beautiful flouncy dresses. It was idyllic.”

 

Dunthorne’s own working environment is no less remarkable. Bolted to the roof of a Shoreditch massage parlour, his carriage forms one of five trains that have been brightly painted and renovated as artists’ studios. In the next car along a team of tailors cut and stitch clothes destined for Hoxton’s expensive boutiques. Further down the carriage, a couple of actors quietly pore over stage directions for tomorrow night’s performance.

 

Tales of apple bobbing with tie-dyed west country folk are Dunthorne’s way of explaining, with characteristic modesty, that he is researching material for his second novel. At the age of 27 he is already an award-winning author – his first book, Submarine, won the University of East Anglia Curtis Brown Prize – and with his forthcoming opus taking shape and an anthology of poems in the pipeline he is quickly becoming Hackney’s hottest literary property.

 

When asked how it feels to be showered with plaudits and compared to JD Salinger by the Observer, Dunthorne smiles and raises his eyebrows in slight bemusement.

 

joe-2“It feels great,” he begins. “It’s very exciting, but it’s incredibly… not strange, exactly – it’s just that everything seems a surprise. When I was starting out all I wanted to be able to do was to write for a living in any format. It just so happens that I managed to do the exact thing I most wanted to do, and I feel blessed and lucky about it all.”

 

Submarine was written while Dunthorne was finishing a masters in creative writing at UEA. It traces the fortunes of Oliver Tait, “a typically sex-obsessed 15-year-old-boy who lives in his own world”, as he goes a mission to save his parents’ marriage and lose his virginity. The ensuing cocktail of adulterous capoeira instructors and pimply coming-

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of-age humour caught the attention of an agent, who swiftly bagged Dunthorne a book deal.

 

“I wish I’d had a bit more of a struggle, to add texture to my writing journey,” Dunthorne says. “But it all happened very quickly so it involved very little hermitage or anything like that, and very little impoverishment – although I was impoverished when I was writing the book as a student, so I suppose I can say that.”

 

The deal rescued Dunthorne from a job “in the world’s most depressing call centre in Norwich” and tugged him into the heart of London’s writing scene. Despite his initial reluctance to settle down in the capital, within weeks he found himself living on one of the loudest streets in Hackney.

 

“My main concern about moving to London was I didn’t want to go through the process of finding a house,” Dunthorne remembers. “I was really scared of it. I just thought, ‘God, I can’t handle this huge city with all its possible places to live and all its traps.

 

“And then my mate rang me up and said ‘We’ve got this room, it’s £400 a month, it’s in Shoreditch’. So I turned up and lived there for two years.”

 

In those years Dunthorne has clearly become a fizzing dynamo of activity. Last week he performed a stand-up poetry skit at the trendy South of the Border bar to celebrate the discovery of Shakespeare’s first playhouse. His brief was to remix a Shakespeare play with a Hackney twist, resulting in the unforgettable image of King Lear howling drunkenly on his hands and knees outside the Brick Lane bagel shop at three in the morning. Dunthorne also runs his own monthly night, Homework, at Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club with a few other likeminded bards.

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Among his other escapades he has managed to get half his new book finished. As-yet untitled, the novel centres around a Welsh family who start up a commune.

 

“Basically, the other has a visitation from a voice on high and believes the world’s going to end,” Dunthorne grins. “It’s about how they deal with that.”

 

Is it going to be have the same Adrian Mole laughs as Submarine?

 

“It’s not as funny, no. If I can put a joke in I’ll put a joke in because I always think ‘Why would I not put a joke in’, but the voice doesn’t carry jokes in the way Submarine did. I’d say this one is a bit more witty than funny. It’s a bit toned down.”

 

At the end of the carriage the actors are still puzzling over their lines. Dunthorne nods to them. The sense of community aboard the tube helps keep his morale up when his workload gets heavy, he remarks.

 

“You get to speak to people, you get to say good morning and drink tea in the sunshine and chat and stuff, which I think is really important.” he says. “I’m not convinced how well I would flourish in the shed at the bottom of the garden.”

I met David Kingsley, the advertising guru who helped transform the Labour party in the 1960s. Here he talks about working for Harold Wilson, how it feels to be compared to Alastair Campbell, and whether he thinks Gordon Brown can beat David Cameron at the next election.

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A small box sits on the mantelpiece in the study, a slogan playfully scrawled across its side in marker pen.

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‘Fidel Castro gave this cigar to Harold Wilson,’ it records. ‘H.W. then gave it to D.K. at a meeting on the evening of his son Andrew’s birthday.’

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Next to the cigar case is a black and white photograph. It shows three men flanking Wilson, the tough-talking Labour prime minister whose mercurial personality dominated the politics of the 1960s. They appear to be smiling in modest celebration.

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“Won two, lost one,” David Kingsley chuckles, nodding at the picture. Now approaching his 80th birthday, he allows himself the indulgence of raising a bushy eyebrow. He is talking, of course, about general elections. Kingsley’s natural aversion to boastfulness must be one of the reasons his story has remained one of the untold tales of modern politics, until now.

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Before Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson refashioned the Labour party into an election winning machine, before ‘spin’ entered the daily lexicon of British newspapers, even before Margaret Thatcher paid two brothers from Baghdad to design her first election poster, a team of elite executives became the first professionals from the world of marketing to help a politician break into Number 10.

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‘Let’s Go With Labour’ and ‘You Know Labour Works’ were the motifs that powered Harold Wilson’s Labour party to two consecutive general election victories in 1964 and 1966, accompanied by innovative TV broadcasts. They sprang from the fertile mind of a young media guru who felt his socialist leanings tugging more urgently than his wallet.

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At the age of 33, David Kingsley was already a veteran marketeer with his own business and experience of working in New York for Proctor & Gamble, the founders of modern advertising. He was “something of a man-about-town”, he remembers with a laugh, a dynamic figure who made regular TV appearances and knew the power players in London’s blossoming advertising scene. Like Alastair Campbell, Kingsley was – and still is – a dyed-in-the-wool Labour supporter.

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Excitement was buzzing in the air when Harold Wilson shaped up to fight the ageing Harold Macmillan in 1964. Here was an energetic challenger, fresh and full of self-belief, who promised to forge a new Britain in “the white-hot heat of technology”.

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So when a mutual friend told him the prospective prime minister was considering radically changing the Labour party’s election strategy, Kingsley jumped at the chance to help.

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“I had a feeling that politicians weren’t very good at communicating with the people, and the people found it very difficult to understand what the politicians were doing,” Kingsley says.

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“The Labour party didn’t know how to communicate with words. If you look back, none of the parties really did.

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“I became very interested in how one could use the latest marketing techniques to understand how you needed to get through to people, instead of just throwing out headlines.”

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After Labour won the 1964 election with a slender majority, Kingsley persuaded Wilson to let him bring in two more high-flyers from the advertising realm, Peter Lovell-Davis and Denis Lyons. Together they became known – only partly in jest – as the prime minister’s Three Wise Men. The first golden age of Labour PR had truly begun.

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“We quickly became very involved,” recalls Kingsley. “Every second Tuesday we’d go to Number 10 and chat over what was happening. Sometimes we’d find ourselves in the embarrassing situation of carrying messages from Number 10 to the party because they didn’t always see eye to eye. It was an extremely interesting period.”

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Political folklore has it that the trio of Mandelson, Campbell and Blair were the first senior figures within the party to really hook themselves to the addictive potion of opinion polling, the gauge of public favour widely seen to be responsible for forming many of New Labour’s early policies.

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But Kingsley insists it was the Three Wise Men – together with their friend Bob Worcester, who later went on to found the hugely successful research company Mori – who started using regular opinion polls to guide party strategy. It was they, years ahead of Tony Blair’s watershed moment, who identified the potential appeal of ditching the Labour party’s manifesto commitment to nationalisation. At the time, even raising the idea would have been like uttering a blasphemy. It was quickly shelved.

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“They weren’t doing proper [opinion poll] research when we arrived,” Kingsley explains. “What they liked was to show their ratings once in a while, but they weren’t digging deeper to find out why people had views on things.

“So the research part of it was very important. In fact to my mind, introducing the Labour party to proper opinion poll research was one of the most important things we did.”

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For a moment he looks slightly rueful.

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“Bob [Worcester] was very good. If they’d used him more we needn’t have lost the 1970 election. I know everyone always looks back, but he was tracking very clearly what was happening and what the problems were in a way the Labour party had never experienced before.”

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It’s clear the art of spin, now so associated with vicious briefings and irresponsible hype, was governed by a certain gentlemen’s code in the 1960s. Kingsley describes Wilson as “a marvellous chap” who would bring his wife and children to parties and would charm friends and foes with his bluff northern manner. He takes pains to point out that even at the peak of the Wise Men’s activities, advertising was seen as a precursor to real discussion.

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“The most notorious slogan we ran against the Conservatives was ‘Yesterday’s Men’,” Kingsley says, referring to the controversial campaign that portrayed Ted Heath’s team as puppets languishing in the dustbin of history.

“But that was actually planned as a preliminary to clarifying our position. It was a preliminary to talking. I always believed you should talk about your policies and your principles, because those are the key ingredients which other people tend to feel good about or not.

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“Things go wrong in politics when people think they know it all, when they aren’t actually closely in touch with what’s going on around them or what people feel like. But everything goes so quickly these days. We used to have time to think about these things. Now you have to think on the spot for 24-hour news.”

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Kingsley parted amicably from the Wise Men and the Labour party when Ted Heath’s Tories scraped to power in 1970. He says he has never been tempted to return to the heart of British politics, preferring to split his time between charity work and advising a number of African governments.

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He still takes an interest in the Labour party’s fate, though. What are his thoughts on Gordon Brown’s chances at the next ballot box? There is a long, meditative pause as Kingsley rubs his hands together.

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“Well,” he offers, “when the first troubles came to the Labour party, and MPs were beginning to say ‘We must get rid of Brown’, I wasn’t of that ilk. We didn’t know what was going to happen, but I thought he’d come through very well at the right moment, and…”

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Again Kingsley hesitates, weighing his words carefully.

“And, I think he has. It doesn’t mean he’s done everything right or everything wrong. But I still think he is the right person for this time. You can’t just go by what the newspapers say.

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“There’s still a lot going to happen in the next 18 months or so until there’s an election. I think it’ll swing back to Labour, more than anything because Cameron and his crew seem to be so bad at doing things.”

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At this point Kingsley raises his hands in mock incredulity.

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“They don’t ever seem to get anything right. I’d love to advise them how to do things because it would be very easy. What is amazing is the Conservative party hasn’t yet managed to modernise itself in the sense of being a party that cares for the whole country – they just haven’t done it.”

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Asked whether he sees the likes of Alastair Campbell and Andy Coulson as his progeny, Kingsley is more evasive. He is grateful to Peter Mandelson for breathing life back into the Labour party in the 1980s, he says, and he recognises a certain parallel between the professionalism the Three Wise Men brought Harold Wilson and the professionalism New Labour’s modernisers brought to the party 30 years later. How about Blair himself?

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“I will always praise Tony Blair for getting the party into the frame of mind where it realised it needed to win something,” Kingsley says slowly. “Of course, many of us lost faith with the Iraq war and… it deteriorated after that.”

Silence settles for a few seconds. An email pings softly on the laptop behind him.

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“He did a very good job for the party,” Kingsley finally pronounces. “But he was a bit of a disappointment. As a person.”

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As the conversation draws to a close, Kingsley lets slip a surprising revelation: he didn’t draw a penny in salary from the government in all his time as its communications maestro. Offering his services for free gave him a feeling of distance from the political machine, he says, and the freedom to do as he liked. His only remuneration came in the form of a Havana cigar, itself a gift from Fidel Castro to Harold Wilson.

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“I’ve promised to give it to one of my sons, but it’s probably falling to pieces,” he explains, gesturing towards the box on the mantelpiece. “I know the exact date Wilson gave it to me because my first son was born earlier in the evening, so I arrived at Number 10 late from the hospital.

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“He had it ready for me, and I said, ‘I don’t smoke’. He said, ‘David, you don’t have to smoke this, but do have it as a celebration of your son’.”

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Kingsley smiles at the memory. “I keep meaning to give it to Andrew, but I think perhaps we ought to frame it or something.”

Harriet Harman’s clash with William Hague at Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday divided the blogosphere. The Guardian’s Andrew Sparrow and Nick Watt broke from the pack and said she “hung Hague out to dry”. Jane Merrick, political editor of the Indie on Sunday, also though Harman had the edge.

More predictable were the damning responses from Simon Hoggart, Quentin Letts and Iain Dale, all of whom thought Brown’s deputy put on a disastrous performance.

If Harman seriously wants to edge out the likes of David Miliband and Alan Johnson when Brown falls – as this week’s press coverage would have us think – two things are certain. She’ll need to be able to deal with vicious briefings, however misogynistic. And she’ll need to hold up against tougher grillings than she got yesterday, on a daily basis.

Judging by her performance in the dispatch box, I’m not convinced she’s ready for either.

Let’s not understate the testing she got. Hague is a nifty parliamentarian, and his taunts over her rumoured leadership challenge in the clip above – “Why don’t you step in? When Chamberlain lost his party’s confidence, Churchill stepped forward” – were superbly delivered.

Harman also managed a few decent jabs of her own, most notably when Hague suggested senior government figures should show contrition for their role in the credit crunch:

As far as [Hague] is concerned can I remind him – if he wants to learn lessons – what he said when he was leader of the opposition? He said: “As prime minister I will make deregulation one of my top priorities. I will drive deregulation from the centre and I will promote ministers not on the basis of whether they regulate enough but on the basis of how much they deregulate.” So, yes, we have lessons to learn, but we’ll learn no lessons from him.

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But she seemed too easily rattled by the juvenile shouts echoing across the benches, and when Hague asked a well-researched question about the government’s failure to implement its loan guarantee scheme for businesses, Harman reeled off a textbook inanity that showed she didn’t know her brief.

The Tory benches roared with boyish glee.

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What a strangely iconic image this is. As Gordon Brown’s British Airways jet lingered on the runway at the US airbase in Maryland, a quick-witted photographer pounced and sold the image to Getty. Within minutes it was all over the internet ahead of Brown’s White House meeting with Barack Obama.

There’s a voyeuristic element in the photo’s composition. Brown looks slightly vulnerable but he also manages to wear a bad-tempered expression. It pretty much sums him up.

I had fun writing the story up for Mirror.co.uk, but one witty comment on the Guardian website says it all:

“When I asked for concealer I meant for the last 10 years, not the wrinkles on my face.”

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