Diary: Ask a silly question, Tony Blair and Barack Obama’s surprising link and a poet cornered
John Rentoul is chief political commentator for The Independent on Sunday, and visiting professor at King's College, London, and at Queen Mary University of London. Previously he was chief leader writer for The Independent. He has written a biography of Tony Blair, whom he admired more at the end of his time in office than he did at the beginning.
Sunday 15 September 2013
Was the downfall of Richard III caused by a strawberry? Could panda poo provide a solution to the global energy crisis? For years now I have collected Questions to Which the Answer Is No.
More specifically, headlines in the form of questions to which the publisher implies the answer is yes when everyone knows it isn’t. They are called QTWTAIN, pronounced “kuh-twain” (the second T is silent) and I published a book of them last year.
But they keep coming and the compulsion to compile them is hard to resist. The strawberry one – something about a possible food allergy – was asked last month by the New Statesman. The panda poo question was repeated in several media outlets last week.
Anyway, my numbered series of QTWTAIN is about to reach 1,000, at which point I have said I will stop. Number 998, asked by The Wall Street Journal on Tuesday, was: “Should You Bring Mom and Dad to Your Job Interview?” Number 999, asked by the Daily Mail on Thursday, was: “Do lobsters hold the key to eternal life?”
I am now on the look-out for a top-of-the-range, out-of-this-world humdinger for the big round number, to provide a suitable note on which to close the series. Let me know if you see it.
The Kenya connection
I have been reading David Remnick’s The Bridge, a life of Barack Obama that was published in 2010. The prologue tells the story of when Obama and Hillary Clinton came to the commemoration of the 1965 battle for voting rights in Selma, Alabama, during the presidential primary campaign and gave rival speeches. It was then, Remnick writes, that Obama’s “scenario for improbable victory” became more than just a dream: “It was just possible that race – especially as he projected it – would help him far more than it would hurt him.”
Unexpectedly, though, in the chapter about the early life of Obama’s father in Kenya, there came a jolt of recognition. Remnick describes Obama’s claim that his father had been a “goat herder” as “a form of rhetorical overreach”, and he quotes Olara Otunnu, a Ugandan politician and a “close friend” of Barack Obama Sr, as saying: “All of us who grew up in the countryside were part-time herdsmen … Obama’s grandfather was, by African standards, middle or upper middle class. He brought china and glassware to the home!”
In one of the most remarkable coincidences in biographical history, this is the same Olara Otunnu who was at St John’s College, Oxford, with Tony Blair, in the 1970s. I came across him when writing my book about Blair.
Otunnu went on to be a Fulbright scholar at Harvard – 10 years before the younger Obama went to the law school there – before returning to Uganda to serve in the government after the fall of Idi Amin. He was briefly foreign minister and has since been a diplomat at UN.
What an unusual claim to be able to make: a friend of the father of the president of the US and went to university with the future British prime minister.
When my friend Andy and I hitch-hiked around Europe and America in the 1970s, we formulated several rules of life, one of which was that BMW drivers never give lifts. We developed a particular aversion to silver BMWs. Four decades later, our findings have been upheld. The Wall Street Journal last week reported two studies that found that BMW drivers “really are the most aggressive and more prone to road rage”. One study, conducted in Britain, reported that the drivers of blue BMWs tended to behave worst. Well, let us not argue about the colour, and also pass over the fact that I used to drive a (red) BMW 3-series: this is scientific proof of what we pioneers first learned on an autobahn sliproad near Karlsruhe.
Men behaving well ...
Top news story of the week: the CCTV footage of a group of young men out drinking in Boston, Lincs, who saw that a bike rack had been bent by a car – almost certainly a BMW – reversing into it, and who decided that if five of them pulled and pushed they might be able to straighten it. Which, at 3 o’clock in the morning, they did. This goes to show that the moaning minnies who decry the youth of today have never been more wrong. Today’s generation of young people are the most public-spirited, most considerate, most responsible, best educated and all-round finest that this country has ever raised.
You may think that “Little Englander” is just an insult directed at people who want as little as possible to do with “abroad”. But new research shows that it is accurate. Professor Richard Wyn Jones of Cardiff University reported his findings at the Political Studies Association last week: people who describe themselves as “English” rather than “British” are more likely to want to leave the European Union. It was one of those academic findings that shouldn’t be surprising, but is.
What gave a great and recently deceased Irish poet the idea to write his bestselling translation? I invite you to a party in 1984 in the genteel Dublin suburb of Foxrock. A young Englishman, Barney Spender, studying at Trinity College, is at the bar. He falls into conversation with a gentleman with a shock of grey hair and says he is studying Anglo-Saxon poems. “I love Beowulf.” “Beowulf?” “Yes, the first real superhero in English literature. Superman, Batman, Rambo: these guys all come from Beowulf. We do have a translation ... but it isn’t great. We could do with a really decent one. So, er, do you like poetry yourself?” To the old gentleman’s face comes a look of pain, surprise and amusement ... The two men part.
Later, Spender (today a sports journalist in Paris) recounted the exchange to a friend. “Barney, you do know who that was don’t you?” Spender: “Some old guy. Seemed to like poetry.”
“Barney, you feckin’ eejit… that was only Seamus feckin’ Heaney.”
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