The day Keir Starmer cried on me about his childhood

I have had a good idea. It may even be an important idea. See what you think. The other day I interviewed Keir Starmer for my weekly podcast, Rosebud. It’s so called because of the Orson Welles film Citizen Kane. Rosebud, you will recall, was the trade name of the sledge on which Kane, as a boy, was playing the day he was taken away from his home and his mother. My podcast is about the early memories of people in the public eye. I wanted to talk to Sir Keir because he aspires to be prime minister and I didn’t know much about him. We met at St George’s

Letters: the Tory party has gone mad

Right is wrong Sir: Katy Balls’s article ‘Survival Plan’ (4 May) starts from a false premise. The problem is not Rishi Sunak, but the current Conservative party’s underlying ethos. With Brexit, the lunatics took over the asylum. The ‘Get Brexit Done’ single-issue election resulted in a Conservative party, cabinet and parliamentary majority sharing populist right-wing views and convinced that the country supported them in all their beliefs. Although Brexit has clearly failed and Boris Johnson has been disposed of, many of the underlying convictions associated with the Brexit philosophy remain. The obvious demonstration of this was the disastrous election of Liz Truss as leader despite the common sense warnings of

Robyn Davidson explores yet another foreign country – the past

Robyn Davidson never set out to become a writer. ‘It did not form my identity,’ she tells us early on in her memoir Unfinished Woman. ‘In my own mind I had simply pulled another rabbit out of a hat. As I had done all my life with everything.’ The rabbit, in this case, is the ability to capture an exciting and complex life with insight and humour. When she decided to leave the underworld, she was sexually assaulted at knifepoint Born in 1950 on a cattle station in Queensland, Australia, Davidson was the second daughter of a handsome war hero from a privileged background. Home was a place full of

Unequivocally Japanese: The Premonition, by Banana Yoshimoto, reviewed

Who are you without memory? This is the question that sits at the heart of The Premonition by Banana Yoshimoto, best known for her 1988 novella Kitchen, which was a smash hit in Japan and adapted for film. The Premonition is a similarly slender work and one that casts a delicate spell. Nineteen-year-old Yayoi has the perfect family – doting parents and a brother she adores – but she feels unsettled, as if she’s forgotten something vital in her past: ‘There, in the midst of such a beautiful evening, my heart must have been full of that premonition.’ Looking for answers, she goes to live with her eccentric aunt Yukino,

Rising star: The Wolves of Eternity, by Karl Ove Knausgaard, reviewed

The Wolves of Eternity is the second volume in Karl Ove Knausgaard’s trilogy which began with The Morning Star, but is that book’s prequel. The Morning Star examined events in the lives of various narrators at the time of the appearance of a bright new celestial body, bringing uncharacteristic heat and luminosity to Norway. It read like a shiver-inducing drama penned by a combination of Phil Redmond, Irvine Welsh and Stephen King. Part of its genius lay in fleshing out the characters by expressing the ugly thoughts we all keep repressed: irritation with over-familiar strangers; frustration with lovers; the thunderbolt of lust; and boundaries and the ways they are breached.

This is what cinema is for: Netflix’s Cuties reviewed

Cuties is the subject of a moral panic and a hashtag #CancelNetflix. It tells the story of Amy (Fathia Youssouf), an 11-year-old Franco-Senegalese girl living in Paris, who learns that her father is taking a second wife. (Polygamy is widespread in west Africa, but you wouldn’t know it from mainstream cinema. You wouldn’t know much from mainstream cinema.) The film deals with the lead-up to the wedding. Amy watches the suffering of her mother (the superb Maïmouna Gueye), who must prepare the house for the interloper, scattering cushions over the marital bed, and the bombast of her small brother, who eats cereal and is learning to be a misogynist. (I

Out of the mouths of babes

For any bosses from the Singapore education department reading this, I have a message. It comes from (I’d guess) most of your schoolchildren. They detest their education system. They burn with resentment at the way their schooling tries (they think) to shackle their imaginations, their individuality, their free spirit. They hate being forced to compete, and are made miserable about what they see as learning by rote. That’s the bad news. But the good news is this. However they may chafe at the way they are taught, these children are anything but broken reeds. Imaginative, rebellious, thoughtful, original, poetic, these winning boys and girls (often of Chinese origin!) write English


I’ve flown only three kites in my life. My stepfather bought me the first. I remember seeing him from a window approaching our little mews house off Bond Street, clutching it furled in its packet as though his life depended upon it. The previous day he had overcharged an electric plane sent for my birthday by my other father, the one left in America following a youthful marriage that didn’t pan out. The walk to the launch took us past the barley-twist facades of Mount Street and Allens the butchers (alas, no more) whose soft light, sawdust and warm meaty air I always recall pooling the pavement on autumn trudges

Alone in the world

Orphans are everywhere in literature — Jane Eyre, Heathcliff, Oliver Twist, Daniel Deronda, and onwards to the present day. They are obviously useful to storytellers, and particularly to the writers of children’s books, who naturally want their heroes to undertake adventures without the controlling eye of ordinarily caring parents. The parents of Roald Dahl’s James have to be killed by a rhinoceros for his satisfyingly swashbuckling adventure in a flying giant peach to take place. L. Frank Baum’s Dorothy, living with an aunt and uncle, is, we know, an orphan, but no trouble at all is taken over her loss — we just like to know that there’s no one

The way things were…

Across the fields from the medieval manor house of Toad Hall, and the accompanying 16th-century timber-frame apothecary’s house which Alan Garner dismantled and moved 17 miles to join it in Blackden in rural Cheshire, sits Jodrell Bank Observatory. Here huge telescopes scour the cosmos, seeking radio waves from distant planets and stars. This juxtaposition between past, present and future, all existing in harmonious symbiosis on land that Garner’s family have lived on for 400 years, seems the perfect metaphor for the creative output of this most singular of English writers. Garner is a visionary who since 1960 has merged history and place-writing with sci-fi, fantasy, regional dialect and memoir to

Even if councils did ban children from playing in parks, most of them wouldn’t notice

Poor old Wandsworth Council. After being pilloried in the weekend press for banning children from ever having fun outside ever again, its members are complaining of a stitch up, claiming that they were merely updating by-laws which would allow them to prosecute someone who was drunkenly thrashing about in a tree, rather than a child wanting to clamber around its branches. The Council was accused of telling children that they couldn’t fly kites, climb trees or play ball games such as cricket in its parks. Campaigners said it would make it even more difficult for children to exercise and enjoy the great outdoors, but councillors have insisted that this is

Child’s play

The Florida Project is a drama set in one of those cheap American motels occupied by poor people who would otherwise be homeless. It’s sad but not depressing, bleak but also joyful, and features one of the best and truest child performances you will ever likely see. Also, it is captivating without ever being condescending — I think. It is always so hard to know, but if you get too hung up on that, cinema will never be allowed to say that poverty exists, or deal with stories that don’t regularly get told, and that’s the end of my lecture for this week, you will be delighted to hear. The

Box of delights | 7 September 2017

No mother, wrote Roald Dahl in his childhood memoir Boy, would send her son off to prep school without, at the very least, the following in his tuck box: a home-made currant cake, a packet of squashed-fly biscuits, a couple of oranges, an apple, a banana, a pot of strawberry jam or Marmite, a bar of chocolate, a bag of Liquorice Allsorts, and a tin of Bassett’s lemonade powder. To these, a boy would add ‘all manner of treasures’, such as magnets, pocket knifes, balls of string, clockwork racing cars, lead soldiers, tiddlywinks, catapults, stink bombs and Mexican jumping beans. One boy in Dahl’s class at St Peter’s in Weston-super-Mare

Frater, ave atque vale

As his obituaries pointed out, my brother David made a name for himself with his unrideable bicycle; his ‘perpetual motion’ machine — a bicycle wheel still rotating in a frame on our mantelpiece (it attracted 1.1 million hits on a German website); and his theory that the arsenic found in Napoleon’s hair and fingernails was down to his wallpaper. The papers naturally got all this wrong (‘Napoleon killed by wallpaper’ they intoned, as did Andrew Roberts), and the image of the potty prof emerged. In fact, his purpose was serious. He was equally serious about our children — after a failed marriage, he had none of his own, to his

Death and childhood

Charlie Gard is incurably brain-damaged, blind, deaf, cannot cry, and cannot move or breathe without help. At the request of his parents, he has been kept alive in hope of a minimal improvement. Ancients did not feel about babies as we do. About one in three died within a month, and about half by the age of five. Putting disabled babies out to die was probably common. There are about 55,000 inscriptions on tombstones referring to ages at death, yet only a handful relate to those under six months. Few ancient authors describe babies behaving like babies; indeed, Latin had no specific word for ‘baby’. Cicero remarked that nature granted

Brava Bella

I like Bella Pollen for her open-mindedness, self-deprecation and verve. Given her early success as a fashion designer — top client Princess Diana — her memoir is extraordinarily modest. Now in her mid-fifties, she has also published five novels — one, Hunting Unicorns, a bestseller. Unusually, this had a dead narrator, and Meet Me in the In-Between also begins with an unearthly creature — a ‘demon’ sexual predator, who won’t leave our memoirist alone. It also deals with writer’s block. Scared of psychotherapy (suggested by her second husband, Mac), Bella playfully positions her two literary agents as pretend therapists: ‘Hasn’t anyone ever suggested you might need to work through your

Is boarding school cruel?

Yes Alex Renton Last week some 20,000 children under the age of 14 packed their bags to return to boarding school for the summer term: a migration unique in anthropology. The habit was born of necessity for the rural gentry in the 18th century, and it became customary for the wealthy and aspirational in the 19th century. But what possible need for boarding is there in the 21st? Some parents say they have no choice. ‘She literally made me do it,’ one mother told me of her eight-year-old, residing at a very smart prep in the Midlands. ‘I was in bits. Still am. But she’d read Harry Potter and Malory

In praise of pink Lego

There aren’t many toy companies that could make headlines in the business press merely by expanding their London offices — ‘Lego blocks out Brexit concerns’ — but Lego is not like other toy companies. Last week it was named the world’s most powerful brand by the consultancy Brand Finance; this week the second Lego movie is opening in cinemas; the University of Cambridge will shortly be appointing its first Lego professor of play. For a company that, a decade ago, was losing $1 million a day, this is a remarkable reconstruction. But Lego has spent those ten years regaining ‘belief in the brick’, according to its new British chief executive, Bali

Dogs for children

Henry, our springer spaniel, has died, suddenly and prematurely. With the passing weeks, we are becoming accustomed to the strange stillness his absence has left behind, and I no longer expect to meet him hurtling around the house in motiveless delight or to find him sidling against my leg as I sit in the kitchen. We do adapt quite quickly to life post-dog, though the sadness lingers. Sir Walter Scott knew this. ‘I have sometimes thought of the final cause of dogs having such short lives,’ he wrote, ‘and I am quite satisfied it is in compassion to the human race; for if we suffer so much in losing a


Here are the first 50 words in the order that they were learnt by a child called Will: 1 uh-oh; 2 alldone; 3 light; 4 down; 5 shoes; 6 baby; 7 don’t-throw; 8 moo; 9 bite; 10 three; 11 hi; 12 cheese; 13 up; 14 quack-quack; 15 oink-oink; 16 coat; 17 beep-beep; 18 keys; 19 cycle; 20 mama; 21 daddy; 22 siren sound; 23 grrr; 24 more; 25 off; 26 tick-tock; 27 ball; 28 go; 29 bump; 30 pop-pop [fire]; 31 out; 32 hee-haw; 33 eat; 34 neigh-neigh; 35 meow; 36 sit; 37 woof-woof; 38 bah-bah; 39 hoo-hoo [owl]; 40 bee; 41 tree; 42 mimi [ferry]; 43 sss [snake]; 44 ooh-ooh [monkey]; 45 yack-yack [people talking]; 46 hohoho [Santa]; 47