Review of the Year: The moments that shook our world in 2010

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The triumphs, the disasters, the cat in a bin. It's been momentous, as our panel of writers recall...

Natural disaster: Blown away by Eyjafjallajökull

14.04.10

By Fay Weldon

When Iceland's Eyjafjallajökull first erupted on 20 March, we took no notice. It was a minor eruption anyway, and what is unpronounceable can have little relevance to our lives. Earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes, forest fires, unpluggable oil wells and so on are for other nations. Natural disasters are designed to happen somewhere else.

But then on 14 April the volcano erupted again, melted through its glacier ice cap and shot pulverised lava 8km into the North Atlantic jet stream. Ash began to fall on us. Our aircraft were grounded. Was such a thing possible? Ash from abroad, interfering with our everyday lives, affecting our pre-booked holidays, stranding us in unlikely places, costing the country billions? Was nothing sacred? Such tiny fragments, capable of stopping the urgent delivery of life-saving transplants? Not just for a day or two, but weeks, months, years apparently, for all anyone knew. It was an outrage.

TV shots of a silenced Heathrow, aircraft neatly lined up and useless, were disconcerting; videos of stranded holiday-makers in tears, upsetting. It might be us tomorrow. A clear blue sky without vapour trails seemed to fling us back to a primitive past. Not as if we could see anything wrong. We looked for someone to blame. Paranoia set in.

For six whole days the finger of fault swung erratically, a compass out of kilter. We blamed the Met Office, with its fancy £33.3m new computer, for triggering an unnecessary shut down of airspace. We blamed the earth scientists for failing to warn us in advance. We blamed the airlines, wimpy in the face of a sprinkling of ash, for refusing to send their aircraft aloft, and the insurance companies, for obstinately refusing to compensate helpless travellers. Some went so far as to joke it was Iceland's revenge for Gordon Brown freezing the assets of their second-largest bank, Landsbanki, on dubious grounds. Six days later the wind changed and it was all over. The media madness stopped.

It was a healthy shock. We do not control nature. We are a vulnerable animal species swarming over a speck of rock hurtling through space, and that rock is unstable, still cooling down over aeons, and still shifting about. The thought both frightens and fascinates.

Every morning since, I have taken to going on the computer to http://en.vedur.is/earthquakes-and-volcanism to keep an eye on the changing patterns of the little earthquake quivers that follow the line through Iceland where tectonic plates meet and struggle for supremacy. Lest we forget.

It's so easy to forget the inconvenient; it seems hard-wired into us. Yet it feels only decent to try not to, to acknowledge nature's power. So I also keep a watching brief on the destructive path of Atlantic hurricanes, was glued for weeks to BP's oil spill, noting the terrible beauty of the billowing oil, so like Eyjafjallajökull's billowing steam clouds. Perhaps being in a magnitude 7.8 earthquake in Napier, New Zealand, while I waited to be born affected me. More likely I'm placating the gods.

Fay Weldon's latest novel, 'Kehua!' is published by Corvus, priced 16.99

Politics: The Dave and Nick Show

12.05.10

By John Rentoul

Margaret Thatcher had St Francis of Assisi; Tony Blair had a new dawn that had broken (had it not?); David Cameron and Nick Clegg had a sunny double act in the garden of 10 Downing Street to inaugurate their own break with the past, a civil partnership ceremony with the shotgun element deeply buried and everyone's happy face on.

The real power brokers, the Roman crowd of the gladiatorial contest, the media mob, sat in rows, thumbs metaphorically up, smiles all round, a joshing question about a joke Cameron once told at Clegg's expense. Cameron pulled a face; Clegg pretended to stalk off; Cameron pleaded with him to "come back, come back"; and the laughter cleansed this new baby, this coalition, this creature not seen in British politics since the monochrome days of Depression and war.

Yes, we had had a financial crisis but, as the tactless Lord Young was later to observe, this so-called recession had passed most people by, and most of us had secretly never had it so good. Here was our new Government, in full colour, and possibly even CGI – Cameron's cheeks certainly looked implausibly smooth. Two well-brought-up young men, both very posh (one slightly posher than the other), pleased but not altogether surprised to be here, about to embark on the adventure of running the country.

What a relief they were, too, after the seriousness and sheer atonal awkwardness of Gordon Brown. Even if you thought that he had been right about the economy and Cameron wrong, it was just a relief to have as prime minister someone who could act the part and smile in the right places. And even if you thought that Clegg had changed his mind on spending cuts just to get in the door of No 10, you couldn't help but be swept up by the nod-along wisdom that it is a good thing for parties to work together.

How refreshing it seemed, to have members of two parties sitting on the Government benches in the House of Commons, ties helpfully colour-coded so that we could tell them apart. There was the thrill of David Laws, incontestably bright, standing on the steps of the Treasury with George Osborne. And even if we thought the Government was cutting too fast, we could not help but be impressed by the buckle of his swash, the intellectual cutting-edge, the glamour and the novelty of it all.

Oh well. How the seasons turn. The clear skies and warm evening sun seem a long time ago. As the nights drew in and the bitter cold descended, the mood shifted. Laws is long gone. As is the innocence of the junior partner. Cameron's feels like a Tory government, with riots in the streets and the big difference with the 1980s being that the Liberal Democrats are attracting most of the anti-Tory hostility, while Cameron, just about, manages to float above it all.

If only Clegg had heard the soundtrack to that brilliant May afternoon: "I never promised you a rose garden."

John Rentoul is chief political commentator of The Independent on Sunday

Royalty: A pressing engagement

16.11.10

By Peter York

There they were, Wills and Kate, looking nice enough on 16 November, announcement day. And there was the Prime Minister, table-poundingly joyous over an engagement that was, at last, some unadulteratedly good news. In subsequent polls, however, the nation seemed, not off-with-their-heads hostile, just underwhelmed. There was, after all, a lot going on. Unlike February 1981 – and the Prince of Wales' engagement to Lady Diana Spencer – we were now online 24-hour party people with MP3s, iPads and a trillion websites to distract us.

In any case, the young couple had been together for seven years, since meeting at university. Though the specifics were hazy, they were well known to have been "living together". Even the most dedicated, knit-your-own-Royals, Majesty magazine-reading spinster in Exeter might suspect that Prince William had already seen Miss Middleton in her nightie.

But all that low-key – practically Scandinavian – reading of the event left out of account one of the new glories of our National Life: our uniquely huge celebrity-gossip media – Heat and Closer and Hello! – which were determined to make a go of it, not as "Court and Social", but as intense human interest, Posh'n'Becks with Nobs on. By the next week, copies of That Dress (Issa, £399) were in Tesco for £16.

Then there was the overseas media, who wanted a touch of the fairytale-romance, gilded-coach side of life because that was what we were known for – as market leaders in the Heritage and Ritual category. A category tied, roped, lashed to our VisitBritain tourist trade (still so central that it makes management of our "national" brand very complex indeed).

And then there was the class thing. Miss Middleton was a commoner and British newspapers all wanted to define "exactly" how ordinary she was. How to "place" her (cf. Sarah Ferguson or Sophie Rhys-Jones)? London-based journalists were very interested in that; far more interested, one suspected, than a lot of their readers, who'd moved on a bit.

But there were lots of conflicting signals. The new coalition front bench, socially "smarter" than any line-up since the early 1960s. And fashion's move to a retro mood – all pea coats and tweed – and a general re-hashing of all those old signs and symbols (not to mention Downton Abbey). All together, of course, just like 1981, with massive stirring Two Nations discontents. That startling Royal car incident, banker-bashing urges and clearly more to come.

In 1981, provoked in part by the Royal Wedding, Ann Barr and I were writing The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook, published in late 1982. It went on to be the UK's biggest-selling trade book of the 1980s. Impossible to imagine that, nearly 30 years later, anyone could get remotely worked up about all that stuff. But on 16 November 2010, I had 10 calls from journalists who wanted to ask exactly those kinds of questions. And more the following day. It was anachronistic and borderline spooky. Taking the long view, you could only hope that tragedy would be repeated as cheery Whitehall farce.

Peter York is a writer, cultural critic and broadcaster

Technology: I came, I saw... iPad

28.05.10

By Rhodri Marsden

Those who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s will remember the Etch A Sketch. Its huge sales figures belied the deep frustration children experienced once they got their hands on one; drawing straight lines presented little problem, but attempting anything diagonal was a stern test of manual dexterity. This year saw the launch of the iPad: it was a similar size and shape to Etch A Sketch, but inspired a radically different level of customer satisfaction. People cooed over it as if it were a kitten, proudly showing it off – but doubters, for whom Apple product launches seem to prompt bristling fury, continued to ask: "Why would anyone want one?"

It was a pertinent question that analysts struggled with as surveys revealed consumers' delight. Is it a big phone that you can't make calls on? Or a laptop without a lid that you have trouble typing on? It was both, frankly – but it was redeemed by being a wonderful web-browsing device, a slick e-reader, a ground-breaking gaming platform, a handy mobile recording studio and much else besides. For many years the tablet computer had been touted as the next big thing, without the computing industry offering any evidence to back up the claim. But the iPad finally persuaded us. And it was no time at all before competitors jumped aboard the bus, with Apple CEO Steve Jobs sitting smugly at the wheel.

His claim that the iPad is "the most important thing I've ever done" sounds less fanciful than it did at its launch. Three million were shifted in one month and "iPad" was the second-fastest rising search term online in 2010 (after Chatroulette). Tesco now stocks them; $20bn sales are predicted in 2011. And if you count the iPad as a mobile PC, Apple is now the top-selling vendor in the US, unthinkable a decade ago. Microsoft will be fearing a post-PC world, while Amazon, whose Kindle e-reader has long been the market leader, is also seeing the iPad gaining ground.

Geeks love the iPad because it's cutting-edge – but technophobes also love it because it's so intuitive to operate. In that sense it might be the perfect gadget; if it wasn't for niggling ergonomics issues (how exactly am I supposed to sit while using it?), there'd be no doubt whatsoever.

The iPad 2 is supposedly arriving shortly. It's rumoured to have a built-in camera and the ability to make free video calls. Do you need one? Of course you don't. But has the iPad proved itself to be more than just another executive toy? Certainly.

Rhodri Marsden writes The Independent's 'Cyberclinic' column on technology

Celebrity: Flashing the flesh

12.09.10

By Harriet Walker

We've been predicting for years that pop will eat itself and outrageous shock-artiste Lady Gaga went some way toward the first stages of cannibalism in September, when she appeared at an awards ceremony in a dress made out of raw meat. "It is certainly no disrespect to anyone vegan or vegetarian," she later told the talk-show host Ellen Degeneres. "It has many interpretations, but if we don't stand up for what we believe in... pretty soon we're going to have as much rights as the meat on our own bones. And I am not a piece of meat."

Hand-stitched from six pieces of marbled flank steak, the dress weighted 15lbs and comprised a bodice, cap sleeves, mid-length skirt and a keyhole detail on the posterior. Gaga accessorised it with a meat bag, meat-covered platform boots and a jaunty meat cap. Restaurateur Ben Turley, owner of New York's Brooklyn Kitchen, suggested the dress should be worn for no longer than three hours, otherwise it would become "wet and really smelly", while Marc Sherry, owner of the city's Old Homestead Steakhouse created a $100,000 version from the finest swathes of Kobe beef, so disgusted was he with the fatty cuts the singer had sported.

Gaga isn't the first to have made flesh fashionable – artists such as Pinar Yolacan and Jana Sterbak have created outfits from offal and prime cuts, while couturier Elsa Schiaparelli once created a lamb-chop hat for heiress Daisy Fellowes. Hussein Chalayan also used meat to create prints on the early collection that won him his place at St Martins.

After Gaga upped the, ahem, style steaks at the MTV Video Music Awards, pundits offered various commentaries. It was at once a feminist statement, an environmental tribute, an art installation, and an anti-fashion fashionable raspberry to the sartorial establishment and the red-carpet coterie of lovelies who usually appear in less visceral garb.

In reality, though, what did it mean? Truth be told, Gaga's outfits have no rhyme or reason, nor do they attach themselves to the zeitgeist. She is a surrealist, whose image works either because it is laden with meaning or means absolutely nothing. She effectively declares "I am not a piece of meat" whenever she steps out without her trousers or with a telephone attached to her head. In which case, why do we insist on sniffing after her and basting her in the juices of our public attention? Because, in the great scheme of things, she's a chateaubriand on a menu full of neck brawn, that's why.

Harriet Walker is The Independent's fashion features writer

Sport: It's all kicking off

29.01.10

By Charles Nevin

John Terry does not look an obvious vehicle for profound argument. English footballers leave that sort of thing to foreigners. Interesting, then, that in 2010, our lads supplanted parliamentarians as the main players in what Macaulay delightfully described as the ridiculous spectacle of the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality.

Puzzling, too. Consider: Wayne Rooney, England's attacking talisman, survived energetic but wayward form on and off the pitch to continue better-paid if not better-loved. John Terry, his defensive counterpart, however, was stripped – such an emotive word! – of the England captaincy in the lead-up to that post-imperial pantomime upon which our national pride and productivity depends, the World Cup.

And now the caravan has moved on, scandalously avoiding us en route, it's possible to see quite how puzzling. Because John Terry suffered his humiliation for sharing nothing more than soothing words and perhaps the odd cup of tea with a friend who'd just broken up with another friend. What other conclusion can be drawn from the later, small and barely noticed apologies of the News of the World and the Mail on Sunday to the said friend, Vanessa Perroncel, for alleging an affair with Terry? So, the outraged castigation; the character assassination of Ms Perroncel; the anger of the other friend, his former Chelsea and England team-mate, Wayne Bridge; the national disruption: all for nothing.

Well, not entirely for nothing. There was an insight into present morality, which might be summarised thus: it's all right shagging around, but we do draw the line at a married man shagging a friend of the wife, who's been the partner of a friend and team-mate and mother of his child, getting her pregnant then arranging an abortion, even if it's not true.

John Terry learnt that a privacy-protecting super-injunction makes you automatically guilty in the eyes of Press and People if it is subsequently lifted. Ms Perroncel learnt that "French model" in this country makes you automatically a tart and can lead to you being addressed in the News of the World as "Mrs Yo-Yo Knickers", "the Chelsea players' sex mascot", without any evidence it is prepared to stand by. Others were struck by the importance attached to Bridge's refusal to shake Terry's hand before the start of a game.

The most basic error in the whole affair would be to imagine that the alleged behaviour itself cost Terry the England captaincy. No, it was simply a pragmatic matter of morale, not morals, according to those who know.

Charles Nevin is a columnist for The Independent

US politics: Discontent brews

01.11.10

By Rupert Cornwell

The next few months in the brief and turbulent history of America's 21st-century Tea Party will answer one overriding question: can a protest movement that is not a party, that has no official leader and no formal national organisation, have the same impact in 2011 as it had in the year about to end?

Many factors contributed to the historic Republican gains in November's midterm elections. None more so, however, than the energy and raw anger of the Tea Party, whose name harks back to events in Boston Harbor in 1773, but whose birth may be traced to a reporter's anti-government rant on a TV business news channel, in February 2009. Rick Santelli's tirade went viral. Within weeks, the new movement was the political buzz of the internet. By August 2009, it was a prime mover in the town-hall rallies against President Obama's health-care reform. The legend only grew as Tea Party candidates toppled mainstream Republican incumbents in primary upsets over the spring and summer of 2010, and Sarah Palin made common cause with them.

In fact, the elections were not an unalloyed Tea Party triumph. Some candidates it endorsed were simply unelectable; enough, perhaps, to prevent Republicans recapturing the Senate as well as the House of Representatives.

Even so, the movement's voice will be heard loud and often on Capitol Hill as the 112th Congress assembles in January. At least half-a-dozen Republican senators are aligned with it while the new Republican majority in the House may include 50 or more avowed Tea Partiers.

What happens next is anyone's guess. Maybe the Tea Party will take over the Republican party. More likely, perhaps, it will be absorbed into it. Either way, there will be friction between the Republican establishment in Washington and the newcomers bent on doing things differently.

As Jim DeMint, South Carolina senator and Tea Party advocate, has put it, "Tea Party Republicans were elected to go to Washington and save the country – not to be co-opted by the club. So put on your boxing gloves. The fight begins today."

Such protest against "politics as usual" in Washington is the oldest hymn in the American populist book. But the Tea Party represents something more – a backlash born of a pervasive sense of national decline; that the system no longer works. Tea Partiers tend to be older, whiter and better off than the average voter. Theirs is not a social conservative movement (though it has some overlap with the Christian Right). Its concerns are above all economic. Tea Party supporters demand an end to deficits and federal bailouts, and the repeal of "Obamacare". Government, they believe, is out of control and must be cut down to size. If they have a motto, it is "Take Our Country Back".

But Washington has a way of suffocating such aspirations. The Tea Party's impact may be felt less on Capitol Hill than in the battle for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. If she runs, Palin will have an army of shock troops, ready made. And if she doesn't, no candidate dare ignore the Tea Party.

Rupert Cornwell is The Independent's Washington correspondent

World affairs: Miner miracle

13.10.10

By David Randall

In a lifetime of taking what many people would regard as an unhealthy interest in current affairs, there are only half-a-dozen events whose key footage I can instantly replay in my head: the progress of President Kennedy's motorcade through Dallas in 1963, turning slowly from one street into another, towards a rendezvous with an ambush which still seems like history being cheated; World Cup-winning Nobby Stiles, sans teeth, dancing a jig with the trophy in his hand; the Moon landing in 1969, and Neil Armstrong looking, as he falteringly stepped on to its surface, like a deep-sea diver several fathoms down; the second plane slamming into the World Trade Center in 2001; and 2003's "shock and awe" rain of missiles exploding on a night-time Baghdad. And now, this October, another indelible moment, when the first of the 33 trapped Chilean miners stepped out of the rescue capsule.

Unlike most major news stories, which come like a sudden sting in the eye, here was suspense which built over months. It was on 5 August that 33 men were entombed 2,300ft down when their mine caved in. For 17 days, there was no contact, and shares in optimism were not selling well. But the supplies in a subterranean refuge kept the men alive, and the Chilean government's determination to try every possibility kept the probing drills going, day after despairing day. At one point, a drill came so close, the men could hear it. But it veered away.

Then, on 22 August, success. A note was passed back to the surface: "We are fine in the shelter, the 33 of us." Now they and the world knew there was hope – and a desperately risky engineering challenge. A new shaft would have to be drilled down to the men's chamber, and its geology prove sturdy enough to withstand a man-sized capsule making repeated journeys through it. Three shafts were begun, and, on 9 October, one broke through. Part of it was lined in steel, and, on 13 October, more than two months after the saga began, a capsule descended. Its return journey – of 15 minutes – would bring the first man out.

Up on the surface, under arc lights and in front of cameras feeding the drama to the rest of the planet, engineers, ministers, a president, wives, sons, daughters, fathers and mothers wore their hard hats and bore the tension as best they could. The wait seemed interminable. Then, a hurry of activity at the shaft-head, and what looked like a missile casing with bent-over railings at the top, was winched into view. Through a grille in its side could be seen a man. The capsule was surrounded by helpers, who took a perfect age to liberate its contents: Florencio Avalos, the first of the 33. There were cheers, and smiles, and flags, and tears, and hugs; but none of these joyful scenes can match the victory conveyed by that battered metal capsule first breaking into fresh air.

David Randall is foreign editor of The Independent on Sunday

Society: Kitty litter

21.08.10

By Katy Guest

It is possible that the name Mary Bale doesn't now mean much to the average New Review reader; but the name Cat Bin Woman probably does. A 45-year-old customer services officer at the Royal Bank of Scotland, Ms Bale was caught on CCTV in August, strolling down a residential street, pausing to stroke a cat, and then calmly, inexplicably, dropping it into a wheelie bin. Lola the moggie was trapped for 15 hours. The ramifications for Ms Bale have lasted longer.

As soon as she was identified as a local spinster who had been visiting her dying father in hospital on the day of Catgate, Ms Bale started receiving death threats from all over the world. Facebook pages appeared calling her "worse than Hitler", illustrating Godwin's Law of Nazi Analogies: that "as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one".

Ms Bale apologised for her "split second of misjudgement". She was diagnosed with depression, lost her job and needed police protection, despite Lola's owners calling for a little perspective. In October, she pleaded guilty to causing an animal unnecessary suffering, and was fined £250, plus costs. "The media interest in this case has resulted in you being vilified," said the judge, "and I have taken that into account."

Other names with which readers might not be immediately familiar include Natasha Gregory, better known as the Pink Cat Woman of Swindon. "Yobs... dyed a cat bright pink before throwing it over a fence," reported the Daily Telegraph in the wake of Catgate, before discovering that the cat had been coloured by its owner using harmless food dye, before being snatched from the streets by well-meaning locals and taken to a vet, who then washed it.

Ms Gregory, however, is a pretty mother-of-two and not a slightly odd spinster, so has not become the villain of the year. Nor has Andrew Shepherd, who was caught on CCTV in September abandoning his lame dog. Nor Wendy Hutcheson, a Crufts prize-winner arrested for keeping more than 90 animals in a "squalid" barn. Nor any of the poultry farmers who produced 90 per cent of Britain's chickens in conditions that would make a wheelie bin look like the Hilton.

Ms Bale's moment of madness illustrates some uneasy truths about modern Britain: our love-hate relationship with CCTV cameras; our hypocrisy about animal welfare; and our uncanny ability to turn single, middle-aged ladies into freak shows. But the lesson of the year is this: don't do anything that you wouldn't be happy to see shown on YouTube.

Katy Guest is a columnist for The Independent on Sunday

Economics: Ireland mortgages its future

28.11.10

By Hamish McRae

It has of course been a year of disaster for Ireland, one of an aborted economic recovery, capped by another austerity budget, forced on it by the need to get an emergency loan. But there are two things that turn a sad story into a bitter one.

One was that Ireland seemed to be doing the right things. It had stopped a collapse of its banking system, the private sector had cut its costs by, among other things, cutting wages. The public sector had begun to do so too. Exports were rising, the country had a current account surplus and domestic demand was starting to revive.

The other was that Ireland might well have come through had it not been for contagion from Greece. The Irish authorities thought they would make it on their own and might well have done had they not been forced by Europe into seeking a loan. I have a text from the Irish Embassy dated 14 November, re-confirming that Ireland had made no approach for financial support and was fully funded until mid-2011. But leaks from Brussels that Ireland had applied for a loan coupled with a warning by Angela Merkel that bondholders should pay part of the cost of countries' restructuring – undermining confidence in the markets – forced Ireland's hand. On 28 November the deal, whereby Ireland borrowed €85bn at an average cost of 5.8 per cent, higher than Greece's rescue, was signed.

And now? The official view is that, following an emergency budget and a new four-year plan, confidence will return and the strong export performance will gradually be supported by growing domestic consumption. That is certainly the view of the government, which is forecasting 1.75 per cent growth in 2011 and an average of 2.75 per cent through to 2014.

The alternative view, articulated for example by Ernst & Young, is that 2011 will see yet another year when the economy contracts, with a forecast of -2.3 per cent growth, and only an average of 0.8 per cent growth between now and 2014. If that were to happen, there would be a real danger that the country would be trapped in a downward spiral of despair.

The reality is probably closer to the government view. It is very hard to be confident about a turning point until it is clearly past, but as growth in Ireland's main markets picks up, the country will eventually be pulled along. But if the rest of Europe had one really dreadful year, Ireland, alas, has so far had three. Fingers crossed it won't be four.

Hamish McRae is an associate editor of The Independent

Fashion: In mourning for Alexander the Great

11.02.10

By Carola Long

One event shook the fashion world like no other in 2010: the death of Alexander McQueen. He committed suicide aged 40 on 11 February, to the shock and sadness of friends, industry insiders and a much wider group of fashion enthusiasts whose imaginations were captured by the East End-born son of a cab driver who became Britain's most celebrated designer.

Inevitably, his death was followed by an avalanche of analysis, the media noting his emotionally desolate Twitter entries and the recent death of his beloved mother Joyce as signs that all was not well. Next came the consumer frenzy as sales of McQueen clothes and accessories soared, with people wanting a piece of the designer's legacy, followed by speculation over who, if anyone, would take the helm at his eponymous label. Behind the headlines, however, the loss to the fashion world was glaringly acute: Britain's reputation as a fashion capital with some of the most original, daring talent in the world owes a lot to McQueen's audacious vision.

After his graduate show at St Martins caught the eye of the fashion stylist Isabella Blow, who bought his entire collection, it wasn't long before McQueen's powerfully provocative shows carved him a reputation as an enfant terrible. In 1995, his autumn/winter Highland Rape collection featured ravaged-looking models wearing lace dresses with ripped bodices and hems. Interpreted by some as exploitative, it was intended as a comment on the English's brutal treatment of Scotland. And McQueen's low-cut "bumster" trousers caused a sensation when they appeared in the early 1990s, but were credited with starting the mainstream trend for low-waisted trousers.

The designer's more controversial moments won't be forgotten, but they never overshadowed his clothes. The romance, drama and technical virtuosity of his creations is unrivalled. Memorable pieces include the couture-like black-and-red, Escher bird-print ball dress and the white, feathered upturned cape in his autumn/winter 2009 collection, shown against a pile of "rubbish" containing props from past McQueen shows amid the tyres and sinks. Then there was his spring/summer 2010 show, which evoked an underwater dystopia, with digitally enhanced, aqueous prints on structured, futuristic dresses. His "armadillo shoes" – towering, domed platforms – were perhaps the strangest footwear ever created. They were like nothing else on earth, and it's that ambitious, arresting imagination that made Alexander McQueen so special.

Carola Long is deputy fashion editor of The Independent

Espionage: Red alert!

27.06.10

By John Walsh

Did you think the Cold War ended 20 years ago with the collapse of the Soviet Union? And that Russian spies, sleeper agents and sexy honeytraps were the stuff of elderly fiction? How surprised you must have been when news broke that the FBI had arrested 10 Russian agents who had been gathering intelligence about nuclear weapons and changes of staff at the CIA for years. (An 11th apparently remained at large.)

They had been sent by the SVR, the Russian MI6, into "long-term deep cover" to live as Americans. Some were sent in couples, to pretend to be married and raise children in local communities. An intercepted message from SVR spelt it out: "Your education, your bank accounts, car, house, etc – all these serve one goal: fulfil your main mission, ie to search and develop ties in policymaking circles in US..."

The undoubted star of the spooks was Anna Chapman. Born Anna Kushchenko, the bright-eyed, OK-looking 28-year-old estate agent was cried up by the British press as a "flame-haired bombshell", a "modern-day Bond girl". To their delight, it emerged that she had worked for a time in London, for Barclays bank, and was married to an Englishman, who sold the story of their sultry sex life to the tabloids. In New York, her friends pooh-poohed the idea that she could have extracted information of any value during her immersion in tequila parties and fashionable nightclubs. It was, however, alleged that she passed secrets from her laptop, sitting outside Starbucks, every Wednesday for a year.

The 10 spies all pleaded guilty to espionage in a Manhattan courtroom and were sent back to Moscow, in exchange for four Russians languishing in prison for spying for the West.

The story returned in November when the Russian newspaper Kommersant identified the man who had betrayed the Secret Ten. The double agent's name was Colonel Scherbakov, head of the SVR's department for recruiting sleeper agents. Kommersant reported that the colonel had defected to the US just before the FBI arrests – and hinted that a hit squad had been dispatched to terminate him with extreme prejudice.

While the other nine have kept a low profile since July, Ms Chapman has embraced her new-found celebrity. She was photographed in low-cut frocks for Zhara (Heat), a Russian men's magazine, attended a rocket launch in Kazakhstan wearing a look-at-me scarlet coat, and has allegedly become an adviser to a Russian bank. She is, breathed the Russian website lifenews.ru, "the girl about whom thousands of men dream". A career in politics definitely seems on the cards.

John Walsh is a columnist for The Independent

Environment: Slick operators

20.04.10

By Jonathan Owen

It began so innocently, with a technician on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig popping off for a cigarette break on 20 April. But he had missed warning signals of rising oil and gas pressures that resulted in a blowout on the deepwater rig in the Gulf of Mexico that killed 11, injured 17, and triggered what became the world's biggest-ever oil spill. More than two million gallons of crude oil spewed from a broken pipe almost a mile underwater. At 20 times the size of the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill, it had a devastating effect on coastlines and fisheries and spread across thousands of miles of ocean.

BP attempted to downplay the incident at first. The company's chief executive, Tony Hayward, became the whipping boy of environmentalists, and US president Barack Obama, when he claimed the spill was "relatively tiny". Adding insult to injury, he went on to complain: "You know, I'd like my life back." The comments provoked a furious response from Obama: "He wouldn't be working for me after any of those statements." In a rare display of anger, Obama said he had visited the Louisiana coast, "so I know whose ass to kick".

Hayward was savaged at a Congressional hearing. And, along with BP chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg, he was summoned to the White House in a showdown where Obama forced BP to allocate $20bn to the clean-up operation.

It was now the summer and the spill continued despite repeated attempts using remote-controlled robots to plug the leak. The flow was only contained when a giant metal cap was placed over the oil well in July. Two months later vast amounts of concrete were pumped in to plug the leak permanently. By October, Hayward had been replaced, helped on his way by a £1m pay off and a £10m pension pot.

It may be decades before the full impact becomes apparent, but thousands of birds and marine animals are already known to have died, and a recent survey of the sea floor near the blown-out well has turned up dead and dying coral reefs.

The shockwaves from the disaster have resulted in a ban on any new offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico until 2017. But in Britain, the Government recently approved plans by Chevron to begin deepwater drilling in waters north of the Shetland Isles. The company has admitted that it would take four months to drill a relief well in the event of a blowout – a similar timescale to the Gulf of Mexico disaster.

Jonathan Owen is a reporter and environment specialist at the Independent on Sunday

Television: Escape to the country

26.09.10

By Hugh Montgomery

Television in 2010 was a tale of two houses. On the one hand, that era-defining den of ordinariness, Big Brother, closed its doors for the final time; on the other, mass attention shifted to a rather more rarefied abode. As the nights drew in, Downton Abbey took hold of our Sunday evenings, and by the November finale, more than 10 million of us were gorging on this lavish portrait of upstairs-downstairs life like his lordship's golden lab at an upturned kedgeree platter.

How, then, to account for the extraordinary success of Julian Fellowes' country-house saga? Some put it down to our appetite for nostalgic escapism; others to the pertinence of its Edwardian setting, underscored by social discord. Or perhaps it was Simon Cowell wot done it, buoyed as its ratings undoubtedly were by following The X Factor. What tarter tonic for an hour of saccharine over-emoting than Dame Maggie's inimitable repertoire of lemon-sucking grimaces?

Downton's greatest asset, however, was its soap-operatic sensibility; here, for once, was a period drama that un-corseted itself from middlebrow self-importance and lived a little. So the arcane business of the entail quickly gave way to a giddy stream of sex and scheming, panto villains and over-ripe dialogue. Who could forget the post-coital snub of a closeted duke to his footman fling, "One swallow doesn't make a summer"?

Full marks, too, to Fellowes for keeping the class conflict flowing off screen as on: when the hoi polloi started quibbling about aberrant TV aerials and anachronistic dialogue, its creator shot back as any self-respecting guardian of the Establishment would. "The real problem is with people who are insecure socially," he hissed. Sadly, he had to backtrack on his suggestion of a left-wing conspiracy, after it was pointed out that many of the criticisms had sprung from that lesser-known organ of socialist fervour, the Daily Mail.

For now, though, the bun-fighting is on hold, even as the aftershocks of the show ripple on, with a reported boom in the sale of old-fashioned nighties and improper fantasies about emotionally repressed valets. Until next year's second series, the blue-blood-thirsty can console themselves with the return of the original upstairs-downstairs drama, er... Upstairs Downstairs, which kicks off tonight. And for those questioning whether the BBC reboot can match its ITV rival for high drama, have no fear: it promises to include "a sex-crazed maid, a Peeping Tom footman and a vicious monkey". The past may be a foreign country, but it ain't half hot, ma'am.

Hugh Montgomery is a TV reviewer at The Independent on Sunday

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