Dreaming of a Red Christmas


The scene is set for the Labour Party’s Christmas Carol Service in Party HQ. Jeremy Corbyn is on stage.



Jeremy Corbyn: Welcome comrades to the Labour Party Christmas party; so good they named it twice!

Silence around the room

Jeremy Corbyn: Tories out!

All: TORIES OUT!!! {general cheering}

Jeremy Corbyn: Yes, as I said, welcome. Apologies for the extreme brightness in the room; Diane bought a few too many bulbs this year.

Diane Abbott: I. Decided. That investing. In fairy. Lights. From my local hardware. Store. Was a good idea. But, yes, I spent the. Entire budget. I got confused. With. The. Numbers.

Jeremy Corbyn: Easily done, easily done, just ask Liam Byrne. But don’t worry, when we’re in power there’ll be more than enough cash to go round, right John?

John McDonnell: Yes comrades, I’ll order the Treasury to fold all paper notes in half. I did the same myself the other day and thought I had twice as much cash in my pocket as I actually did, ha ha!

Jeremy Corbyn: Er, quite. Anyway, well done for sprucing up your sunglasses everyone. I think this office is now the brightest thing in the sky; brighter even than the North Star!

Voice from the back: Actually it’s a common misperception that the North Star is the brightest in the sky…

Jeremy Corbyn: Yes, thankyou Hilary…

Hilary Benn: I just feel honour-bound to point out where the leadership has got it wrong…

Jeremy Corbyn: And I thank you for your insight and honesty; you know how much I welcome feedback and friendly criticism.

Hilary Benn: Can I just say that…mmmmpfpff..

Hilary Benn is muscled away from the stage by two black duffel coat-wearing figures in sunglass

Jeremy Corbyn: I’m glad to see you’ve all voluntarily arranged yourselves into centrally-organised groups for the carols. Let’s start with our old friend and party loyalist – just look at his nose! – Rudolph!

The gathering breaks half-heartedly into Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer but barely gets through the first verse.

Voice from the crowd: JEREMY, I’M NOT HAPPY!

Jeremy Corbyn {squinting into the crowd}: For the love of Marx! What’s that?

A woman in fancy dress wearing a huge green satin ball with two spiky leaves poking out barges her way to the front of the crowd as the singing dies out

John McDonnell: It’s Emily. She dresses up as the Holly ‘Thorn’ Berry every bloody year.

Emily Thornberry: Jeremy, I don’t think we should be celebrating in song the victimisation of workers and encouraging a culture of workplace bullying.

Jeremy Corbyn: What?

Emily Thornberry: Well look, there’s plucky little Rudolph, doing his bit, while all the other reindeer laugh and call him names. They won’t even let poor Rudolph join in any reindeer games!

Jeremy Corbyn: Well I hardly think…

Emily Thornberry: And then, AND THEN, when the Tory manifesto has really hit the fan..

All: YAY!!!

Emily Thornberry: Yes, along comes the first foggy winter’s night and Santa, the work-shy elf-exploiter; the man who has presided over this system of harassment and intolerance; the supposed seasonal expert who hasn’t even winter-proofed his vehicle, has to turn to dear old Rudolph so his red nose can light his way!

Jeremy Corbyn: Yes, fair point. I’m not having it. There can never be any excuse for the abuse of one reindeer by another reindeer. I have a simple message for Santa and it is this: you wear red, it’s about time you started acting red!

All: YAY!!!

Jeremy Corbyn: Thankyou, thankyou. Now let’s try another. Nothing says controversy-free Christmas like the lovely jingling of bells!

The crowd groans their way into Jingle Bells, but don’t get far.

Voice from the crowd: THIS IS MODERN DAY SLAVERY!

Jeremy Corbyn: Hugo’s ghost, what now?

Shami Chakrabarti: A one-horse open sleigh? Britain has the highest level of adult obesity in Europe and we expect a pair of canoodling fast-food addicts, no doubt carrying gallons of sugary drinks, to be pulled merrily along by one poor horse?

Jeremy Corbyn: I, er, I thought it was a merry-go-round.


All: YAY!!!

Shami Chakrabarti: No, Jeremy, it’s quite clear. Over the fields we go, LAUGHING ALL THE WAY! Well I’m not laughing, and I don’t think the millions of animal-lovers in this country would laugh either if they knew the level of exploitation that was happening in the name of festive fun.

Jeremy Corbyn: Absolutely Shami. I’ve long demanded a new model of equine management to replace the failed dogmas of neoliberal Christmas celebration.

John McDonnell: Jeremy, get on with it. They love your speeches but you’ve not yet managed to translate any of their support into completing an actual Christmas song.

Jeremy Corbyn: Right, right. Well comrades, what could be more trouble-free than a rendition of We Wish You A Merry Christmas?

Voice from the crowd: As long as we all remember it’s ‘kin’ not ‘king’; the common misperception…

Jeremy Corbyn: SHUT UP HILARY!

Len McCluskey leaps onto the stage.


Jeremy Corbyn: Yes, yes, Len, whatever you say.


All: YAY!!!

Jeremy Corbyn: Of course Len. John, enough in the kitty for every comrade to have a cup of good cheer?

John McDonnell: I doubt it, Diane’s blown the lot!

A mince pie is thrown from the crowd and hits Len McCluskey.

Voice from the crowd: Clear off McCluskey, you’re the ghost of Labour Past!

Jeremy Corbyn: Calm down Chuka! Len, willing to compromise on the figgy pudding?


All: Ho Ho Ho Je-re-my Coooorrbyn!!! etc etc etc…


Tricolour down economics

green goldCentral banks and pension funds are embracing green and gold investments.



“FOLLOW the money,” encouraged the shadowy figure of Deep Throat during the Watergate crisis. His words might be wise counsel today for those worried about a Trump bump in global finances. According to a report issued on June 14th by the Official Monetary and Financial Institutions Forum, a think tank, of the world’s top 750 central banks, sovereign funds and public pension funds almost half the respondents worried mainly about political hazards. Almost a third cited US and wider geopolitical risk as their greatest challenge. Brexit and a renewed euro area crisis accounted for a further 17%.

Collectively these institutions control $33.5 trillion of global assets, equivalent to 45% of global GDP. That is an increase of 1.4% from 2016 (but still down on the 2014 figure of $33.798 trillion). The Asia Pacific region remained the largest area with Assets Under Management totaling $12.7 trillion; 37.9% of the total. Four investment authorities from the region were in the top 10: the People’s Bank of China, Bank of Japan, Japan’s Government Pension Investment Fund and the China Investment Corporation.

Relative to sovereign funds and pension outfits, central bank assets declined in 2016. That is partly down to intervention in currency markets to stave off devaluation. In other cases, particularly among energy and commodity exporting countries, reserves have had to fill holes in national budgets, vulnerable to a strong dollar (the sovereign funds of Algeria and Kazakhstan have been particularly badly hit by low receipts from energy exports). Part of the 9% year on year fall in assets of China’s central bank, the People’s Bank of China, was down to investment in the Belt and Road initiative (although it maintained its number one slot with just under $3.1 trillion in assets).

Two sectors have caught investors’ eyes. Green bond issuance is expected to grow year on year by 30% in 2017, to $120billion, according to Moody’s. Central banks and pension funds in North America and Europe are the most enthusiastic investors, with the latter leading the flight from fossil fuel-related industries. (In 2017 Norway’s sovereign wealth fund divested 10 companies with significant exposure to coal.)

Gold holdings increased by 377 tonnes in 2016 to 31,500 tonnes; the highest level since 1999. At the time of a raging bull market in equities this gold rush reflects only partly the 9% increase in the price of the shiny metal in 2016. It also points to nervousness around the main reserve currencies and a diversification, particularly in emerging markets, from US assets.

Given the interest in gold and green investments, “you could by forgiven for thinking that something nasty in the global economy was lurking just around the corner,” says Martha O’ Hagan-Luff, an Assistant Professor of Economics at Trinity College Dublin. “Political uncertainty turns investors white,” she warns.


At the quiet limit of the world

I used the research for this post as the basis for an article commissioned by 1843 Magazine, the sister publication to The Economist. The article ‘Death by Design’ will appear in the June/July 2017 edition of 1843. 

ospedale degli innocentiDennis Barlow, anti-hero of Evelyn Waugh’s 1948 black comedy The Loved One, was as fascinated as he was appalled by the chintzy glamour of the Whispering Glades funeral home. ‘Normal disposal is by inhumement, entombment, inurnment or immurement,’ his briskly robotic mortuary hostess explained, ‘but many people just lately prefer insarcophagusment.’ The novel describes a bleakly competent approach to the end of a life; a subject that used to be much more visible to the living when we died at home and were laid out in the rooms and visited by the people we had loved in life. Most people, at least in the Western world, now die in hospitals: drab corridors, harsh lights and a cacophony of noise. As populations grow and end of life prognoses are extended, is a blandly efficient and industrialised process the best we can hope for in death?

No, says Alison Killing, a Rotterdam-based architect and TED-lecturer on the subject. Specialising in urbanism and the use of public spaces, Ms Killing contrasts the grim functionality of modern hospitals with the Ospedale degli Innocenti, the Hospital of the Innocents, in Florence, Italy; a 500-year-old testament to open spaces, light and beauty (pictured above). “Death has become institutionalised,” she says. “Hospitals have so many uses it is hard to design in anything other than a coldly functional way.” Ms Killing supports the use of smaller institutions for palliative care that do not need to meet all the demands of hospitals and can create a more intimate atmosphere.

Maggie’s, a UK-based cancer charity, aims to offer such comfort. “If you’ve got cancer, you know it,” says Laura Lee, the CEO, “you don’t need huge signs saying ‘Cancer Treatment Centre’”. Architecture and design can help alleviate the feelings of isolation, vulnerability and hopelessness that follow a diagnosis, she feels. Signage creates an institutional feel, a sense of the professional bestowing expertise on a grateful, subservient patient. Instead, the architecture of Maggie’s Centres’ allows people to process themselves; a roving staff member acts in lieu of a reception desk. The library and communal kitchen allow newcomers to feel helpful to others within moments of arrival and the human connections reduce anxiety levels; visitors feel valued and in control. Patients are empowered by the architecture and the psychological nature of the relationship with the staff is more equal, right to life’s end.

The architects, Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners, intended the 370-square-metre West London Maggie’s Centre to represent a heart, wrapped in four protective walls under a floating roof; a haven from the dense urban location. But “it’s not about creating a citadel,” Ms Lee says. Or of ignoring reality; dedicated areas known as ‘pause spaces’ located near the entrance provide room for newcomers to process emotion, particularly useful after a late diagnosis. Similar concepts shaped their Tokyo centre, designed by Tsutomu Abe. Visitors talking at the communal tables about their cancer benefit from knowing they are not alone, observes Masako Akiyama, head of the centre and a specialist in end of life care. “They breathe a sigh of relief,” he says, “when they step into the centre for the first time.”

The first British crematorium opened in the late 1870s to huge controversy. Public health bodies had lobbied for them as graveyards overflowed and corpses, laid too shallow, reappeared with gruesome regularity. The furnaces were first tested on horses, to convince a sceptical public. In 2015 more Americans chose cremation over burial for the first time and 75% of Britons choose this option today. Across the Western world religious observance has declined and more transient populations generally eschew permanent burial locations.

Louise Winter is a graduate of the London College of Fashion. Her company, Poetic Endings, a bespoke funeral service, focuses on what she calls the ‘software’ of the day – how it feels to the family – rather than the ‘hardware’ of objects such as coffins. She is concerned that big funeral companies’ act more in their shareholders’ interests, to the detriment of choice.

Known as the Mary Poppins of death, having run a café in the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn, she delights it is still legal in Britain to bury people in their back gardens – albeit at a certain depth (dependent on water table) and stated on the property deeds. “It can affect house prices,” she warns.

She has arranged services at the London Wetland Centre in Barnes, among 42-hectares of lakes and meadows, and the Peckham Asylum, a “beautiful, tragic and decaying” 19th Century chapel in south London, unrestored since it was bombed in the Blitz. The space feels sacred and ceremonial and seemingly acknowledges it is witness to a milestone in a person’s life. “It’s where I want my service to be,” she adds.

Specialists in green burials note how methods such as chemical embalming and the use of natural gas for cremations are increasingly shunned. Yuli Sømme trained as a weaver in her native Norway and now makes eco-friendly coffins from wool and hazel wood, locally sourced near her Dartmoor home. Rosie Grant of Natural Endings has seen an increase in demand for her environmentally friendly wool and banana leaf coffins. “People are better informed,” she says, “they want softer, less funeral-ly looking things”. Some clients of Amy Cunningham, owner of Fitting Tribute Funeral Services in New York, prefer objects able to “surrender fully to mother nature, rather than working against her,” particularly the more observant traditions of the Jewish faith (she has trained in the Tahara ritual). Willow coffins particularly appeal to women. “They say, ‘oh my god, that’s me!’ as if they’re looking at a dress in Saks on Fifth Avenue,” she exclaims.


Beneath a smudged sky of watercolour greys in Cambridgeshire, southern England, Toby Angel walks down a muddy autumnal track, Nash, his faithful Labrador, at his ankle. Mr Angel likes the short, meandering path from the car park to Willow Row, the first round barrow to be built in Britain for 3,500 years, slowly emerging from the surrounding willow, ash and oak trees (pictured above and below). Like many visitors, he appreciates the physical exertion that, however slight, shakes off the yoke of modern comforts. Humanity has long regarded the circle as a fundamental and venerable shape: a newborn infant focuses almost immediately on the mother’s breast and iris; the ancient Greeks saw in circles the divine symmetry of nature. Neolithic burial chambers were community focal points. Human ashes have been found alongside evidence of feasting and animal bones; a favoured companion perhaps, an earlier Nash?


Mr Angel set up his company, Sacred Stones, after he had been disappointed by the crematorium experience following his aunt’s death. “Nasty blue carpet, Luther Vandross and twenty minutes later we were out,” he remembers. “Families relinquish control of death to the commercial devil that is a box-ticking and prescribed process”.


A six-foot, roughly diamond-shaped, sentinel stone welcomes visitors, standing at a gap in the trees. The female stone (all such stones are sexed, with obvious phallic shapes denoting masculinity) breaks the sight line and introduces the softly domed barrow behind. Two muddy shoulders, slowly grassing over, reach forward almost to the stone and describe a small oval entranceway.


Stepping inside the transformation is immediate. A few paces and the world outside is another place. Sound reduces to a low, comforting hum as the wind channels through the barrow. Voices do not carry and are instead softened by the floor and stone walls varying in hue from grey to blue depending how deep in the mine they had lain (the higher the pressure, the more a stone exhibits a blue colour). The 11-metre wide structure consists of an inner chamber of 59 large ‘family’ niches surrounded by an outer circle of 349 smaller spaces. Both the inner and outer sections have corbelled roofs five meters high. The stones are supported by their collaborative weight, with a modest use of lime mortar throughout. York stone benches lining the outer circle and inner chamber offer a place for contemplation, laughter, grieving; whatever the family want, and whatever offers them a “simple, easy and uncluttered death”. Prehistoric barrows harnessed the excitement and energy of a communal human gathering as our forebears celebrated where we came from, as well as where we were going. The ceremony, as the central unifying event, connected the living to the dead. It still can.

All is not butter that comes from a cow

cowManufactured anger can be just as dangerous as the real thing

Like the captain of a sinking ship appealing for calm at the lifeboats, Rabbi Lionel Rosenfeld tried in vain to impose order on the Kiddush; the meal celebrating the Jewish Sabbath. “Families first, families first!” he exhorted over the herring. He was either unheard or ignored: elbows were deployed with the speed of the tanks he had fought in during the 1982 war in Lebanon, children squeezed between ample bellies to snaffle crisps and the single malt was knocked over into the aubergine. The semi-organised chaos of the Western Marble Arch synagogue in central London contrasted with the peace of the Nirvana restaurant next door.

The animated and wiry rabbi blesses every day he is able to perform this duty. Three years ago he was warned by MI5 that, alongside Boris Johnson, the-then Mayor of London, his name was on a Hamas hit-list; “exalted company,” he smiles. Shabbat, Judaism’s Sabbath, the weekly day of rest and centerpiece of Jewish life, is always a special time for the faithful. The weekend of November 11th and 12th was especially significant. Hoping to promote community and identity by energising those whose participation had waned a tad, Ephraim Mirvis, Britain’s Chief Rabbi, had decreed it to be ‘Shabbat UK 2016’; the third annual jamboree of all things Jewish.

But as one community was united in celebration, so too was another in condemnation. Shabbat starts just before sunset each Friday, after which all work is to cease until Saturday night. In winter months this sees observant Jews knocking off around four o’clock in the afternoon; the Chief Rabbi hoped employers would respect this requirement. Most respondents shrugged in bemusement (it is not unusual to see Britain’s pubs heaving at this time on a Friday, regardless of season), but some expressed outrage at a perceived shoehorning of religion into the secular British workplace. The Chief Rabbi would be better to keep his nose out of such matters, they carped.

How confected is such peevishness? Britons consider themselves an undemonstrative and tolerant bunch who live and let live, mustn’t grumble and rub along well enough, thankyou very much. They wish not to offend, or be offended, in almost equal measure, but can’t remember which is more important. This ability to muddle through and accommodate disagreeable attitudes has served the country well and it is unusual for otherwise inconsequential issues to beget such chippiness. Ruddy cheeks are generally assumed to be the result of bracing walks and fireside whiskies, not grousing over largely irrelevant social mores.

Even the Labour party has had to exorcise the ghost of anti-Semitism, and the line between criticising Israeli government policy and Jews more generally is easily smudged. It is easy to see why, says James Sorene, CEO of the British Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM), a think tank. He blames a lazy and complicit press for whipping up old prejudices. The complicated subject of Israel “makes good journalists better,” he believes, “and bad journalists worse”. One in five Britons think hating Israel and questioning its right to exist is not anti-Semitic says a BICOM poll released on November 4th.

Islam has suffered superfluous rage too. Louis Smith, Britain’s four-Olympic-medal winning gymnast, took a tumble recently after he appeared to mock the religion in a leaked video. His drunken antics resulted in a two-month ban from his sport’s governing body. It will not impact his career, but sends a dubious message. Did British Gymnastics get on its high horse because he insulted Islam or for being a ninny? (If the latter is now their responsibility, public bodies will be busy; not least in the Palace of Westminster.) Incitement to hatred is a criminal act; laughing at others’ religious beliefs is not and dictating what can and cannot be considered funny ultimately leads to the Charlie Hebdo attack. Concocted fury born of a fear of upsetting religious sensibilities helps nobody.

The worrying aspect of this trend for fabricated anger and knee-jerk rage is that it stifles productive debate – the one thing Britain is crying out for in this topsy-turvy 2016. Ridicule is a powerful de-motivator and who wants to offer opinions and receive a tongue-lashing in return? Social media hurl voices much further than they hitherto have reached and they land with added force; moderate views have consequently retreated from public discourse. Increasingly, the only views available are polarised. The majority of participants care little for tackling or winning the argument; the primary purpose is to vent spleen.

Reasons to be cheerless

Gisela Stuart, MP for Birmingham Edgbaston and Chair of Vote Leave for the EU referendum (now Chair of its successor: Change Britain), identifies three culprits for this coarsening of political discourse in recent years. First: the professionalisation of the politics of outrage. Epitomised by the “bloody scary” former Austrian politician Stefan Petzner, the trick is to play the underdog, capture headlines and be as shocking as possible, without letting public outrage turn to disgust. Second: the unhealthy manner by which political parties have courted race and religion. Distributing Eid cards for example, or targeting specific ethnicities might be considered vote-winners, but can backfire and highlight division. Third: the tribal nature of British politics, particularly since the Brexit vote. In Britain, winners are expected to demonstrate high-minded responsibility, losers to huddle together and seek solace. Brexit cut across these lines: Theresa May supported Remain but finds herself having to champion Leave. “And the losers are saying ‘how dare you win! Explain yourselves!” Mrs Stuart laughs, “actual ideas have gone out the window”.

When discussion becomes antipodal and mouths and minds open and close in toxic ying-yang relationships, society risks fracturing. Rabbi Rosenfeld remains hopeful and considers Britain a wonderful place to practice his religion. He longs for a return of traditional British balance. “After all,” he grins, “as Shimon Peres said: it is only anti-Semitic to hate Jews more than absolutely necessary.”


Never mind the passage of time

nirvananevermindalbumcoverTobi Vail, former girlfriend of Nirvana front man Kurt Cobain, became a fan of the youth-targeted deodorant Teen Spirit when it was launched in America in 1991. As a joke Katherine Hanna, the lead singer of the band Bikini Kill, which also included Vail, scrawled across a wall in Cobain’s apartment ‘Kurt smells like teen spirit’.

Misinterpreting the statement as a comment on mainstream American society at the time, Cobain decided it was the perfect phrase to embody the disconnected rage and contempt felt by those who had not benefitted from, or could associate with, the excess and misplaced optimism of the indulgent 1980s. He used it for a song he had written which included lyrics like ‘I feel stupid and contagious’ just so there was no doubt where he was coming from. He called it ‘Smells like teen spirit’ and it was released on Nirvana’s second album, Nevermind, which came out 25 years ago on September 24th 1991.

The album went Platinum by November and reached Diamond status in 1999 with 10 million units sold. Only the most ardent of fans would claim it was musically one of the greatest albums of all time, but sick of the cartoonish excess of the ‘hair bands’, stadium-rock and spandex of the previous decades, Nevermind spoke to a generation like nothing else had. Cobain once explained where he drew some of his inspiration for the dark feelings and rejection he channeled in his lyrics: “Some of my very personal experiences, like breaking up with girlfriends and having bad relationships, feeling that death void that the person in the song is feeling — very lonely, sick”.

If there is any doubt about how important Nevermind was, consider this: nothing quite so powerful, with the ability to resonate within a generation has come along since. In terms of economic stagnation and career aspirations, many people today who feel globalisation has let them down are channeling the same anger and frustration experienced by the fraternity Nirvana appealed to 25 years ago. But there has been no voice or sound with the same impact on the current generation as Nirvana had back then. Bruce Springsteen is still valiantly carrying the torch, but nothing and nobody has exploded into the public consciousness with the force to define a genre like Nirvana did with Grunge.

So it’s all the more surprising then, that the title of the album was Nevermind, which suggests more of a shoulder-shrugged disappointment than an angst-fuelled middle-digit to the world.

And it got me thinking. What, 25 years ago, had you hoped to achieve by today that you have not – but no major regrets, just something that you might shrug off with a “well, never mind”? I decided to spend a night out in London asking friends and strangers alike and include some of the answers below:


I wanted an ability to drink multiple pints, or wines, without succumbing to feelings of remorse and regret the following day.

I was a stoner. I wanted to be Jim Morrison.

 I wanted to walk and stop wearing nappies (an odd response given the question)

 I wanted to be able to talk to women without going red.

 I wanted kids and a white picket fence. My furry four-legged friend, though, is cheaper and will die younger!

 I was 18 and had just won the North of Scotland Junior Best All rounder (a cycling competition) and come 6th in Scotland. I was pretty certain I would win an individual Scottish championship.

 I was 15. My major aim to was to go out with Johnny Ray. I wasn’t cool enough and two years younger so….never mind. 

 I wanted to have a physique like my brothers when he was about 17.

 I wanted to sleep with one of the Spice Girls.

 I didn’t save enough money before my gap year travels. Not having enough money was the least of my worries as it turned out, so never mind.

 Sad though it is to say, if I think back to listening to that album endlessly on flying scholarship and being best student of the year with a mate who went onto fly harriers, the answer is probably fast jet pilot.

 I was gonna be a big shot architect. No joke.

 I was incapable of linear thought back then aged 19. I always assumed I would want a Ferrari or Lamborghini. Turns out I don’t.

 Honestly: climb Everest (failed); play pro-rugby (failed); learn to paint (failed very badly); live and work in a really rough foreign place (failed – sort of).


Taking my research ever more seriously as the night wore on I had a strained conversation (as I could barely be heard) in a bar at 2am. Starting poorly by asking the woman I was chatting to/shouting at if she was from Denmark having heard her accent, she said, no, Isle of Lewis, Scotland. I plowed on regardless and posed my question. She wasn’t sure she’d heard of Kurt Cobain. “What?”, I exclaimed, possibly a little too forcefully, “the restless, troubled genius that gave a voice to millions and defined an era; the sincere, contemplative, creative force that was so genuinely authentic he really felt the pain he wrote about such that it eventually killed him?”

“Sorry, I don’t know who you’re talking about”

“But, he was…….oh, never mind.”