Bercow, Djokovic, Bloomberg… and Alexa: my 22nd February diary

Home Alone with Michael Scott
Perhaps foolishly, my parents have entrusted me with the defence of the family home this week as they take off for a half-term jaunt. I’ve not encountered any incompetent criminals and spooky old men – or stolen any toothbrushes, for that matter – but came close to panic yesterday when I heard creaking and chatter upstairs. The source turned out to be a combination of the wind and my disobedient Amazon Echo playing Billie Eilish – who, in my defence, has the glum monotone one would associate with a burglar. I think the moral of the story is that a) technology is taking over, and b) I need to get out more.

Still, there’s a lot to be said for putting away dozens of After Eights whilst bingeing on The Office (US), which I’ve discovered a mere fifteen years late. America has an unparalleled capacity for crass, unsophisticated comedy which treads just on the right side of the line between genius and stupidity. If Brooklyn Nine-Nine is the archetype of the brand, The Office is a worthy second. I’ve been through six series since Christmas, which might explain the general lack of progress on my long-term employment plans.

Cycling and the climate crisis
At least I’m keeping fit – although cycling to work in the tempestuous weather conditions of the past few months has been mentally draining. Constant traffic jams and exercise at 8:30am are hard enough without the sensation that you could make more forward progress on a treadmill. Speaking less prosaically, this weather is a worrying sign of what’s to come for Britain as global heating gathers pace. This winter, I can only remember about half a dozen mornings with frost, or without high winds. In Norfolk, we haven’t seen the devastating flooding of recent weeks across Yorkshire, South Wales and the West Midlands, but sea level rise constitutes a mortal threat for a third of the land area of the county by mid-century. Without naively investing our future in technological advancements like carbon capture or food production by genetic modification, it’s hard to see how political institutions from local to international level will be capable of responding to the apocalyptic climate threat.

Considering the shortcomings of our current politics in the face of the climate emergency has revived my interest in academic study. I read David Wallace-Wells’ bestseller, The Uninhabitable Earth, over Christmas, an outstanding exposition of the scientific consensus that without radical changes to global emission levels, we will see a planet at least 3C warmer than the pre-industrial average by 2100. I say at least because with negative feedback loops like the melting of Siberian permafrost (which will allow the release of methane gas 34 times more polluting to the atmosphere than CO2), runaway warming to 6C or higher cannot be ruled out. Wallace-Wells presents the estimated effects of each degree of warming with terrifying force, reiterating that our current political mode of denial, delay and obfuscation only heightens the need for more radical changes further in the future. My interest lies in the ability of democracy, and a global order centred around self-sustaining nation-states, to make any meaningful contribution to prevent the warming that Wallace-Wells foretells.

Theorist Anthony Giddens sets out the paradox that democracies focused on short-term, popular concerns in four- or five-year election cycles can never plan for long-term threats like climate change, which require unpopular changes that a plurality of voters just won’t assent to. In the context of right-wing, authoritarian populism across the world, people have already lost faith in democracy. Does the system have a continued purpose in its current form, or, as David Runciman posits, is this how democracy ends? How can states interact for the greater global good, especially bearing in mind the uneven consequences of global warming – for, say, Bangladesh compared to Canada? Could an authoritarian global regime ever be viable for the benevolent delivery of massive emission reductions? It’s a pipedream at present, but I can envisage a meaningful academic career based on the exploration of these questions.

Old white men at the helm
Looking across the pond, the interminable electoral cycle in the United States epitomises the case that across Western democracies, it’s basically politics-as-usual. We’ve only reached the third contest of the 2020 presidential primary season – with the Nevada caucus tonight – and to call the Democratic frontrunners an uninspiring bunch is a disservice to that adjective. Joe Biden (77), Bernie Sanders (78) and Michael Bloomberg (78) are deeply flawed has-beens who are too old to offer the energy required to run a country for four years. You may call me ageist but consider the incumbent: President Trump is 73 and spends most of his time watching television – sorry, in “Executive Time” – playing golf, and holding rallies where adoring crowds indulge his bilious stream of consciousness. He is not really running a country.

The only candidate with an effective combination of experience, sensible policy ideas, charisma and oratorical skill is Elizabeth Warren, who has been eclipsed on the liberal wing of the Democratic party by an adulation for Bernie Sanders that surpasses the British Corbynmania of 2015-19. In Wednesday’s debate, Warren was the star performer, eviscerating her rivals and – with any luck – sinking the candidacy of Bloomberg before it really begun. Her devastating welcome to ‘a billionaire who calls women “fat broads” and “horse-faced lesbians”. And no, I’m not talking about Donald Trump. I’m talking about Mayor Bloomberg’ deserves a watch on YouTube. But it is unlikely that Warren’s debating prowess will convert to momentum when she is fishing from the same voter pool as Sanders. She will need to perform reasonably across the 14 states that vote on Super Tuesday (March 3rd), stay afloat financially, and hope for a contested convention in July. The good news is that Warren raised over $1m during Wednesday’s debate alone. Forget the Boy Mayor Pete Buttigieg: if they do not nominate Warren, the Democrats will prove themselves ideologically and physically tired and invite four more years of Trumpian dystopia.

Emma and John: a further lack of imagination
On the theme of disappointments, I went to see the new adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma on Tuesday. It was a fallow week at the cinema, and the trailer looked fairly amusing. Unfortunately, it was a classic case where the trailer contains all the best parts of the film. Beyond the striking presence of Anya Taylor-Joy as the title character and Miranda Hart playing Miranda Hart, Emma was a yawn-fest made more challenging by the concentration required to understand any of the dialogue. The subtitled Korean film Parasite was a far easier, more compelling watch, thoroughly deserving of its four Academy Awards.

The experience of Emma takes me back to the question that will always reveal me as a philistine: why has the British cultural establishment decreed that Austen, Dickens, Brontë – dare I say Shakespeare – should be celebrated literary paragons when their work is so pedestrian and impenetrable? I understand their importance in terms of historicism: understanding the works in the context of their time; the writers’ backgrounds; and their audiences. But why do we need constant re-adaptations that insist on using the same archaic language? Entertainment is not about spoon-feeding or being bludgeoned with an important message, but sometimes it’s nice to unwind. No number of A-listers can save a cinema experience in Emma that is best replaced with a good snooze.

This week I also finished former Speaker of the House John Bercow’s autobiography, Unspeakable, which left me with a similar sense of disappointment. The title leaves hostage to fortune the notion that Bercow has an insightful personal view of the last decade of British politics on which, as an impartial representative of Parliament, he has been unable to comment. The truth is that Bercow’s positions have never been in doubt to external commentators. While he adroitly skewers political actors from David Cameron and Andrea Leadsom to William Hague, one senses that he wrote this book for the sole purpose of settling personal grievances. The writing is, ironically, more accessible than Bercow’s Dickensian speaking style, but also less exciting. The first four chapters are particularly disappointing: a basic chronology from his birth in middle-class North London in 1963 to his election as Speaker in 2009. It continually acknowledges Bercow’s political conversion from Thatcherite, Enoch Powell-worshipping Tory, to diehard liberal repeatedly encouraged to defect to Labour, but offers only vague allusions to why his political philosophy should have changed so radically. He repents for his unsavoury anti-immigration stance in the early 1980s, chronicling an early advocacy for equal marriage legislation, but I get the sense that it is too unfashionable in the current political climate – or maybe too painful – for Bercow to dwell further.

The remainder of the book contains entertaining profiles of individual MPs, and useful background to his reforming Speakership, but lacks cohesion. His chapter on ‘What makes a good MP’ might have been re-titled ‘Here’s a selection of MPs I most like’. Even on Brexit, despite explaining the procedural vagaries surrounding Theresa May’s Withdrawal Act in Parliament, Bercow constructs a narrative suitable for a textbook rather than a personal autobiography. Most bizarre is the Epilogue on challenges for the future, which gives a vague discussion on the merits of electronic voting and relocating Parliament, before listing gazetteer-style facts about the British Isles in lieu of explaining why he believes that the fundamentals of our politics remain strong. This is a victory for matter-of-fact narrative – punctuated intermittently by Roger Federer – over a consideration of Bercow’s personal political journey.

Is Federer finally fading?
I can’t hide the fact that I share John Bercow’s conviction that Roger Federer is ‘the greatest player in the greatest era of the greatest sport ever devised’. But as anyone who saw his valiant performance at the Australian Open can testify, the Swiss is increasingly hampered by a 38-year-old body which makes him an unlikely contender for future Grand Slam success. Serena Williams also experienced in Melbourne that relentless consistency for seven matches in a row cannot be relied on for the older players, regardless of their talent. This week Federer revealed that he underwent a knee surgery that will keep him out of action until the grass court season: an ignominious reminder of his mortality and the likely triumph of Novak Djokovic in the overall Slam race. This is the ultimate currency of tennis success and it is likely that by the end of 2021, barring serious injury, he will break Federer’s record of 20, as, possibly, will Rafael Nadal. The young pretenders – Tsitsipas, Medvedev, Zverev, Thiem – are increasingly threatening, but lack signs of the mental ability to challenge these players on the most important stages.

With Nadal, Djokovic and Federer indisputably the best three tennis players on the planet, vying for the ultimate title, the men’s game is going through a unique period for which we should be grateful. However, I find it hard not to be petulant about the GOAT issue. Djokovic’s rise to success came after the battle lines between Federer and Nadal fans were drawn in the mid-noughties and has given both sides a shared enemy. As the Grand Slam race has narrowed, my enthusiasm for Nadal and his barnstorming, never-say-die attitude has grown. This, and the unforgiving, metronomic style of Djokovic’s game has made the Serb very difficult to like. I have struggled to empathise with his vulnerability, or the way – for instance in the Australian Open final against Dominic Thiem – that he can seemingly flick a switch between tanking and total effort. I have profoundly disagreed with the way he has led the ATP Player Council (which last year was reticent to sanction board member Justin Gimelstob after domestic abuse charges) and his historical opposition to equal pay. Least rationally, I find it very difficult to forget the outcome of Wimbledon 2019. That is not to say that the Serb shouldn’t deserve my full respect. I would have to admit already that based on head-to-head statistics and his best level, Djokovic is the Greatest of All Time.

Perhaps climate change, and the increasing unsustainability of an itinerant sporting circuit, will have the last word. As one of the Guardian’s most insightful commentators, Marina Hyde, wrote during an Australian Open held with the backdrop of bushfire devastation, the structure of a “World Tour” in tennis and many other sports cannot continue if each are to address their environmental impact. Removing plastic wrappers for racquets is a drop in the ocean when we consider the air travel emissions of individual players every year. Of course, the AO’s Aces for Bushfires initiative demonstrated the best of sport’s ability to unite in philanthropic relief where governments have singularly failed. Celebrities will be scorned unfairly for the inconsistencies in their environmental impact; Federer and Nadal donated $250,000 jointly to bushfire relief, but the Swiss is sponsored by companies that invest heavily in fossil fuels. But international sporting institutions, not just players, need to grapple with the elephant in the room; Hyde identified the waste involved with quadrennial Olympics, an especially prescient concern as the coronavirus outbreak threatens to scupper this summer’s games in Tokyo. Our attitude to the climate emergency will undoubtedly change if we are denied the things we love: will a threat to the future of live sport force the layman to take notice?

What year? Every year
Rather than end on such a gloomy note, I will leave you in celebration of the birthday of the underage drinker in Hot Fuzz. In a scene now enshrined in meme history, an off-duty Sergeant Angel (Simon Pegg) cannot resist challenging the punters of his new local: