The morning after

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We are still picking up the emotional pieces in the immediate morning after the disaster before. Dazed, confused, barely able to appreciate the long, insurmountable task ahead. But if, amid the actual chaos, you want to understand why the election result is such a grim and terrible thing, check the stock market.

The “markets”, that celestial sphere of imagination and speculation where no actual goods are sold, reacted with nervousness before the election results were in, as the “markets” feared a Labour victory. They need not have worried.

Cameron’s smarmy victory calmed them all down and offered a happy finish, and all the bad guys got rich. The luxury property market for foreign investors; the large corporations who employ slave labour; the arms dealers; the private rail companies; the foreign-owned utility companies. See how many times you let out a triumphant cheer and effect an air-punch when you learn that Sports Direct, which has 15,000 of its employees on zero-hours contracts, added £95m to its share price overnight; the private rail operator Stagecoach added £140m to its stock market value as the “threat” of putting the East Coast mainline back into public ownership vanished; Babcock International and BAE Systems, war hawkers by appointment, celebrated the disappearance of the “threat” to Trident with rising share prices to the tune of £460m added to Babcock’s; shares in estate agents Savills, the London-based Foxtons and “upmarket” housebuilders Berkeley jumped upwards; surprisingly British-owned energy giant Centrica went up 8%; RBS and Lloyds added £5.5bn to their combined value (the Tories plan to sell their shares in both) and “cheers” were heard on the trading floor of the City when Ed Balls lost his seat (mind you, I cheered too, for different reasons); perhaps most galling of all, useless outsourcing companies G4S and Serco all benefited on the stock market as the Tories are gung-ho for farming out more public services to private companies, who will fuck them up; oh, and Ladbrokes, those arm’s-length destroyers of men, added £96m, as Milband had been planning to cut down on the number of fixed-odd “betting terminals” allowed in betting shops – and a continued Tory Britain will guarantee more people desperate for money, the bookies’ best customers.

That’s who’s going to benefit from five more years of this. If you’re happy about that, fine. Actually, no, if you’re happy about that, fuck off.

See you at the bottom.

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I warn you not to fall ill

ElectionDCpumped Tomorrow in this country we vote in a general election. I hope you’re going to vote. You should vote. Even Russell Brand has done a U-turn on this issue. And unless you have literally not a single thought or care for anyone but yourself and your immediate family, then you must not vote for this man.

There is a high probability that this man, who is called David Cameron, hates you. He wouldn’t care if you died – in fact, if you are not a “wealth creator”, he’d probably prefer it if you did die, as you are probably in the way and more likely to put pressure upon the state. He hates the state. He can see no better way of running a “society” than on the lines of a private company. He does not care about you unless you are already well off, or would be prepared to do anything to become well off (including voting for him – or at least, for his party, as he’s already confirmed that he’s not even going to stick around for the full five years).

He is not interested in politics, simply in feathering his own nest and the nests of those whose nests are already also pretty well feathered, but could always do with some extra feathers. In the far-off days when the Labour party meant something but found itself unelectable in the new Thatcherite climate of self-interest (except in places like Wales and Scotland), Neil Kinnock made a speech on 7 June 1983 in Bridgend, Glamorgan, that belatedly touched me deep inside and shaped my adult politics. Speaking two days before the election, he said:

If Margaret Thatcher wins on Thursday, I warn you not to be ordinary. I warn you not to be young. I warn you not to fall ill. I warn you not to get old.

It still rings true today, except perhaps even more so. Whether you vote Labour, or Green, or Plaid/SNP (depending on geography), or for an independent, you will be voting against David Cameron and another five years of destruction: of the state, of communities, of the NHS, of the BBC, of the ordinary, the young, the ill and the old. I am neither young, nor ill, nor old, but I’m voting for more than just me and my immediate family.

I am pumped up, actually. The Tories do not believe in compassion, or a safety net, or assistance, or local services, or local amenities, or loving thy neighbour. They would happily see a library close if it wasn’t profitable. The only useful public sector to the Tories is one that’s shriveled and decimated. They would privatise the health service on Friday if they thought they could get away with it. (They’ve already privatised the Royal Mail, something Thatcher wouldn’t even do.) They hate the arts. They hate humanities, and humanity. We know they’re going to cut £12bn from the welfare bill. We don’t know how, but we know they will. They’ve actually announced it. I can’t think of a single pound of that bill that isn’t going to make someone’s life less worth living. Possibly someone ordinary, young, ill or old.

He bangs on about the “chaos” of Labour, because it’s a soundbite and it works on a very basic level, which is the only level politicians like to work on (the deficit, immigration, jobs, waiting times). Such binary thinking is unquestioningly broadcast by the print media it owns until people in vox pops on the news actually start to parrot stuff about “getting the deficit down” without knowing what the deficit is, or why it needs to be “got down”. These same people think Nicola Sturgeon is the most dangerous woman in Britain. And that Labour caused the global financial crisis of 2008, which they didn’t, but were too timid to say so after Gordon Brown, because he had – it’s true – failed to regulate the banks and a cloud of embarassment fell upon the centre-left. The people who read the Sun and the Mail and the Telegraph think Labour will bring “chaos”. But I see “chaos” now. It’s going to be messy on Friday and in the weeks after, but let’s just do what it takes to keep this man out.

He is Margaret Thatcher without the ideology. Margaret Thatcher without the effort. Margaret Thatcher without the struggle. I did warn you.

It’s not easy being Green

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There is a general election in 15 days. That’s just over a fortnight. Assuming you registered, there are only two ways to vote: with your wallet, or with your heart. (Actually, three: tactically, which feels like beating the system but might equally be a case of being beaten by it – then again, I’ve never lived anywhere marginal, so it’s not been an option for me personally.) Now that all the manifestos are in, and we’ve all read them – right? – we can make an informed decision where to put our cross. I will be putting mine next to my local Green Party candidate. Why? Because the Green party stands for most of the things I stand for. Or vice versa.

They are, it has to be said, a utopian party. And yet, they have had one sitting member of Parliament since 2010; also, one peer, three MEPs and two members of the London Assembly (I live in London). They finished fourth at last year’s European elections, beating the Lib Dems. Realistically, the Spock-like Darren Hall could win Bristol West in 15 days’ time, but the Greens are standing in around 90% of seats in England and Wales, compared to 50% five years ago (search for your local candidate here), and the recent “surge” in membership, which doubled last year, has been something to behold. (The party has more members than the Lib Dems and UKIP.)

Many consider a vote for the Greens, or any of the other “smaller” parties, as a protest vote against the Westminster cabal. In many ways, my own preference for the Greens is a two-fingers to the disgusting Tories and the ruined Labour party (the Lib Dems were a spent force the day they formed the Coalition). In my fevered dreams, the Labour party would make these manifesto promises. In reality, the Green party does.

  • End austerity
  • Introduce a new wealth tax on the 1%, a “Robin Hood” tax on the banks and close tax loopholes
  • Increase the minimum wage to reach a living wage of £10 an hour by 2020
  • A publicly-funded health service, free at the point of use (remember when it was actually like this?)
  • Ban fracking
  • Invest in renewable energy, flood defences and building insulation
  • Scrap tuition fees
  • Bring Academies and Free Schools under local authority control
  • Re-nationalise the railways (frankly, if they just promised this, I’d vote for them)

You can read the Green manifesto in full here. If you’re one of those people who likes to tear things apart, I’m sure there’s plenty here that doesn’t quite add up to the last penny. (I expect you also lapped it up when Natalie Bennett had a “brain freeze” on LBC, or was railroaded by Andrew Neil on The Daily Politics – a privatised railroad, of course – as it’s easy sport to debunk what is still thought of as a single-issue party and whose ideas go beyond bean-counting and deckchair rearrangement.) But since when did sums that don’t add up stop the bigger parties in their race to the bottom line, parties who are funded by corporations, while the Greens are not. You can guarantee that no party funded by big business and lobby groups will tackle climate change, or re-nationalise anything, or tax the super-rich because the super-rich are their donors. And although two MPs (pleeeeeeease!) doesn’t quite add up to a Parliamentary majority, I’m thinking with my heart here, and inside my ribcage, I can feel the steady beat of progressive thinking.

You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one, and I’ll be proud to swell the figures for a party that speaks directly to me. And if we didn’t labour under the yoke of First Past The Post in this particular democracy, some of the smaller parties would have a louder voice, without all the blackmail and manouvering that’s afoot as we speak. I would happily consider a vote for Plaid Cymru or the SNP if they’d bothered to stand a candidate in my area – and I certainly welcome female leaders, who have already, between the three of them in the TV debates, made Ed Miliband’s “Hell, yeah” posturing seem pretty pathetic. So the Green Party it is.

I have gone back to my constituency to prepared for not having voted in the government. And although it’s not easy to be Green – they’re always begging for a fiver, for a start! – it feels right. If the majority of the comments under John Harris’s latest election film for the Guardian prove anything, it’s that the Green party has a target painted on its back and a sign saying, “Mock me.” I remember when I was a member of the Labour party back in the idealistic 80s and was accused by a firebrand from the SWP of supporting “a racist party” (I never did inquire why) for my audacity to sport a “Vote Labour” sticker on my coat. To make a choice is to draw fire. But an election is all about making a choice. Unless you follow Russell Brand, whose first-past-the-postmodernism refusenik stance has found traction since he put his head above a parapet it would be much easier to hide behind, and I feel the pain of any young voter disinclined to vote for the yes-minister dinosaurs. But no vote at all is a negative form of protest, like atheism: it is an absence, not a stance. Polly Toynbee insists disaffected Labour votes put a peg on their nose and vote for them anyway. A vote for the Greens requires no such protection. The air’s cleaner over here.

Oh, and by the way, to save your typing fingers, I know the bin collection has gone awry in Brighton Pavilion.

Carry on, nurse

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In the late 1980s, I spent an awful lot of time at St George’s Hospital in Tooting, South London. I wasn’t ill. I had fallen in with a gang of medical students who were being schooled there, through a mutual art school friend of mine. Though outsiders, the pair of us joined their amateur theatre group, later aggrandised by the name Renaissance Comedy Associates. (One of the students, a driving force behind various dramatic and comedic ventures, was Matthew Hall, who would later adopt the stage name Harry Hill and leave medicine behind.) Because St George’s is a teaching hospital, in that Prelapsarian era of low security, my memory is of having free run of the place: I drank subsidised lager in the Students Union bar, and treated the hospital’s corridors as my own, constantly venturing into the bowels of the place to rehearse with a band, or block out a play, or even curate evenings for the film society. You could even park for free. (It’s £2 an hour these days, I just checked.)

The upshot of this fecund period of my postgraduate life – during which Matthew and I co-wrote a play which we took to the Edinburgh Fringe, and a solo play I wrote about a Woody Allen obsessive was staged at St George’s vast, functioning theatre (not the operating kind) for two nights – is that it shattered my innate fear of hospitals. Having been rushed to A&E twice in my life at that point – both times, in childhood, to get stitched up after an accident in the home – the smell of hospitals still triggered an existential gag response in me, as it does to most people, I would guess. I’d been inside Northampton General plenty of times to visit family members – the worst being when my ailing grandfather was hospitalised, never to come back out – and I would have laughed if you’d told me that in my early 20s I’d voluntarily and regularly hang around in an infirmary with over 7,000 dedicated staff that serves a population of 1.3 million across Southwest London.

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In the decades since, I’ve been through the doors of other hospitals, usually for benign tests, or on the occasion of emergencies relating to others, and although they are always potential buildings of death and bad news, I have never slipped back into fearing them since my time as a St George’s groupie. However, the endless recent horror stories about the NHS, which arrive on a daily basis, and range from lethal malpractice and institutional abuse to simple underfunded inefficiency, seem to be doing their best to drive us all away from places designed to make us better and mend us. If the car parking charges haven’t achieved that already.

In January, 15 hospitals in England enacted “emergency measures” in A&E (handily emblemised by an emergency tent erected in the car park of the overloaded Great Western hospital in Swindon). Such symptoms of failure are easy enough to diagnose: we all live with improved life expectancy, with the ever ageing population leading to more ailments and infections; the winter (although it didn’t even get that catastrophic this year); vicious cuts to Council budgets leaving patients without social care and thus blocking hospital beds; the recruitment crisis among GPs, who are hard enough to get an appointment with anyway; the new 111 emergency phoneline driving traffic to A&E algorithmically; just generally more illness as we eat terrible processed food and – who can blame us? – drink and smoke our way out of austerity. None of which ought to be a surprise to those controlling budgets and none of which is suddenly going to go away.

The NHS is sick. It is a suitable case for treatment. It needs TLC and all it got from the last government was PFI, which means nicer-looking hospitals that cost twice as much as they said they would, made tidy profits for the private companies who built them, and inside which every essential service from cleaning to catering has been outsourced to the lowest bidder. But at least Labour wasn’t ideologically against the very idea of what the Americans call “socialised healthcare”; the Tories absolutely are, and would have the NHS fully privatised in a second if they thought they could get reelected afterwards. The dicks.

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What’s a national health service to do when the government of the day wants it asset-stripped, and the leader of a currently ascendant golf-club fringe party can think of nothing better than to criticise the English pronunciation of some of its dedicated staff? The majority of us in this country don’t have health insurance. So the majority of us rely on the NHS. It’s ours. But its original cradle-to-grave guarantee is under siege from Tory ideology, which is to say: privatise the shit out of it. (Because free market capitalism states very clearly that the private sector is better equipped to run everything than the public sector.) Perhaps, romantically, you regard emergency medicine and longer-term care as a service that cannot be farmed out to private companies – who, by their very nature, must run things with an eye always on the bottom line. Perhaps you feel that medicine should be available to all, and paid for my our taxes? Like running water, or electricity, or rail transport, or gas. (Spot the irony there.)

Carry on Doctor I keep seeing ambulances which proudly announce that they are run by G4S. (I wouldn’t announce my presence if I were G4S, but such private companies know little of hubris.) This is how old-fashioned I am: the very sight of a private, or partly-private, or public-private, ambulance make me feel sick. The NHS works “in partnership with” G4S, a company that has been criticised for using “non-approved techniques” at a detention centre, the “breach of human rights” of a prisoner being treated at Royal Liverpool University Hospital (who was handcuffed to a security guard for eight days), and using immigrant detainees as cheap labour, and is currently accused of torture at one of its South African prisons, and the unlawful killing of an Angolan deportee after “unreasonable force” on a British Airways flight. The company also paid a settlement of £109 million to the government after a Serious Fraud Office investigation into tagging, incorporating a refund for “disputed services”, but still it enjoys government contracts. Who wouldn’t want these people turning up to take you to the hospital – what could possibly go wrong?

So it is no surprise to find out that St George’s – my adopted alma mater! – relies on G4S to “provide flexible healthcare logistics solutions that meet its customers’ evolving requirements.” It’s all rotten, right down to the weasel words used to dress up its job description. At least, as the election looms, the party that used to be Labour is using the NHS as one of its big platforms. Who can blame them, when the Conservatives have made their feelings about the old warhorse pretty plain? I’m stirred that it’s still considered an issue, even by Labour strategists, with the ghost of PFI still sitting at the banquet table. The Green Party bemoans “botched privatisation schemes” and “hospitals and surgeries treated like profit-driven businesses rather than public services” and promise to oppose cuts, closures and privatisation , and to “maintain the principle of a free NHS”.

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It’s not over yet. But it’s worth bearing in mind when you choose who to vote for if you wish NHS doctors and nurses to carry on treating you.

Is this thing on?

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It’s not exactly been radio silence, but since the end of 2012, my voice has been heard only intermittently speaking into a microphone. (Thanks to benevolent producers I’ve known for many years at Front Row and The Film Programme on Radio 4, I have enjoyed occasional short bursts of public address in the interim.) Above is one of the last Zelig photos I had taken for my collection when I was deputising on the 6 Music breakfast show and welcomed my transatlantic friend Harry Shearer onto the air in the latter half of 2012, with Matt Everitt standing by. It was fun while it lasted, but the two-year break has allowed me to indulge my insane ambitions to concentrate on scriptwriting, so I’ve been grateful for that.

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Which is why this is the best birthday present a broadcaster of a certain age could have asked for. I have landed the job of taking over the hosting of Saturday Night At The Movies on Classic FM. This has been brewing since before Christmas, when I first discovered that the station’s eminent composer-in-residence Howard Goodall was giving up the show as he had a lot of actual composing to do – notably, the Bend It Like Beckham musical – and his prime 5-7pm Saturday evening slot was available. (As if to prove how tasteful Classic FM’s more recent appointments have been, the show is sandwiches between Alexander Armstrong and Alex James. I feel rather honoured.)

As someone whose twin loves are and always have been music and cinema, and whose natural way-in to classical music has been through orchestral film soundtracks, this is my dream gig. I’ve listened to the show with Howard at the helm, and its mix of populism and intelligent dissection works a treat. Classic FM is a commercial station (part of the Global group, which also includes Capital, Heart, Smooth and XFM), and it seeks to entertain as well as inform. As a relative layperson when it comes to classical, I often tune into Radio 3 and find it a little forbidding and exclusive. Classic FM is the opposite, and I think I’ve found a perfect new home here.

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The idea of curating and “jocking” some great movie themes and perhaps lesser-known cues and overtures from a century of cinema, and enthusing about them in between, thrills me to the bone. After a sabbatical, even more so. Continuity arrives in the form of John Barry, whose Zulu theme (one of my all-time favourites with its foreboding timpani and wall of brass and strings), used to herald my arrival on 6 Music, by law, and may just feature in my first show for Classic FM, this Saturday at 5pm.

It’s well over ten years since I last joined a new radio station, and the experience of being welcomed into the bosom of the Classic FM “family” has been warm. Having been in and out of the Leicester Square HQ to record some demos during the job-interview process, it was with some awe that I actually collected my electronic “dongle”-style pass yesterday, having been introduced to everybody who works there from the MD to marketing, and taken in to see the great John Suchet while he was playing a record on-air. Having worked predominantly for the BBC over my 20 years in broadcasting, it was a shock, but not an unpleasant one, to be introduced to a dedicated team of people who all seemed to have definable jobs. As I commented to John, as I now call him, it’s all muscle and no flab in commercial radio.

Wish me luck. It’s a big new adventure. There will be no Cud, but there might be some There Will Be Blood. We already have plans, my new producer and I, to rustle up a disaster movie special, and perhaps a show revolving around music from comedy films. I will get Clint Mansell into a future show, too. Along with Eric Rogers and Philip Glass. Maybe in the same show.

And God bless them for using this “classic” picture to advertise my arrival on the Classic FM website. Cue the old joke: who’s that woman with the new presenter of Saturday Night At The Movies?

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Upriver

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When, in 1988, numb with the lack of creativity in my supposedly creative job, I founded my own fanzine and filled most of it myself with NME-influenced prose, I commissioned myself to write a two-page feature on aquatic metaphor in the work of Lloyd Cole, with tangential reference to Apocalypse Now and Joseph Conrad. I headlined it Upriver. This allegorical fascination with bodies of water and the tidal movement towards the ocean has remained with me. Apocalypse Now is still my favourite film, on days when it’s not The Poseidon Adventure, and a dream about falling into the water with killer whales still haunts me. To borrow a line from Captain Willard, this watery thread weaves through my subconscious “like a main circuit cable.”

You can, then, imagine my delight when I received the latest album from Rob St. John, which is about a river. A committed, roving troubadour from Lancashire who first poked his head above water mid-last-decade and found purchase at Song, By Toad, an Edinburgh-based blog-turned-record label, he released a split 7″ with fellow atmos-folkster Ian Humberstone in 2011, which is where I came in. This was closely followed by St. John’s elemental deubt LP, Weald, which was my album of the year, a passion I was able to share via 6 Music, which still employed me in those days.

Four years later, I am unable to play Rob’s new album to you (I call him Rob as I was able to get my new softly-spoken hero onto 6 Music for an interview during that last mad surge of usefulness and it felt like we had been friends for years), as I no longer have a popular music-based radio station to play with, but I am able to tell you about it.

Surface Tension is right up my tributary. More than an album, it’s an instrumental “project” that explores “landscape and pollution … through sound, writing and photography” along the River Lea, which flows southeast from the Chiltern Hills and provides London with a good amount of marsh, not to mention the Lea Valley Park. Commissioned by Thames 21’s Love the Lea campaign, it exists as a 30-mimnute continuous piece of ambient music and recorded sounds, and a 48-page book of 35mm and pinhole photographs.

It’s far more bindingly conceptual than the already thematically focused Weald, but designed to be listened to as a whole, not as individual tracks. With all that said, you can sample the single on Soundcloud here. I could tell you that the work was made using binaural microphones, underwater hydrophones, tape loops, harmonium, analogue synth, tube organ, cello, piano and guitar, but you really need to hear it to appreciate it and – yes – immerse yourself in it. (Read more about Surface Tension and how to order it on Rob’s website.)

lovethelea2013 What a treat to hear music that is almost definitively ambient, certainly in its use of field recordings, many of which were in themselves recorded in fields, especially in the run-up to a business-led general election where the Green Party seem so vital again – to me, anyway – with their commitments to protecting the natural world rather than digging it up and putting a price on it. Rob St. John is one of those artists whose deep roots in the soul of this green and often unpleasant land make the very idea of recording using electrical equipment seem anathema, but whatever works. He has to put it out there. And he deserves to be heard. (Albeit magical, organic and otherworldly, Weald is more conventional in shape and sound, if you prefer a front door into his work and although the vinyl version sold out, you can still purchase it on CD or download it here. The only thing missing from the new LP is Rob’s gorgeous voice, of course!)

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Now, back to the classical music … (we quibble over terms!)

Libération

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Radicalism usually prospers in the gap between rising expectations and declining opportunities. This is especially true where the population is young, idle and bored; where the art is impoverished; where entertainment – movies, theatre, music – is policed or absent altogether; and where young men are set apart from the consoling and socialising presence of women.

This thought-provoking quote is from Lawrence Wright’s vital 2006 book setting out the long context leading to 9/11, The Looming Tower, which I read in 2007. In it, he traces al-Qaeda back to its roots in Egypt, and Sayyid Qutb, the “father” of the radical Islamic movement: a middle-class, educated civil servant and writer who learned his hatred of America while studying there in the 1940s.

It was modernity Qutb took exception to (“secularism, rationality, democracy, subjectivity, individualism, mixing of the sexes, tolerance, materialism”) and returned radicalised to Egypt, a country still under the yoke of Western colonialism. After Gamal Abdel Nasser took control in a military coup against the bloated ruling class in 1952, Qtub hoped for “a just dictatorship”, but Nasser moved the country towards a socialist, secular society (ring any bells?) and Qtub’s cohorts in the Sharia law-favouring Muslim Brotherhood turned against the leader they had helped to put in place. (The Brotherhood would, of course, play its part in the post-Arab Spring reconstruction vacuum.)

Qtub ended up in prison in the crackdown on dissenters after a failed assassination attempt on Nasser, and it was here, brutalised, tortured and horrified at the Muslim guards’ treatment of other Muslim prisoners, that he wrote his apocalyptic manifesto, Ma’alim fi a’Tariq (Milestones), which, among other assertions based on his own dark reading of the Quran, stated that any Muslim serving Nasser was not a “true Muslim”. (This observation from 50 years ago felt relevant again yesterday when Malek Merabet, brother of the murdered Muslim policeman Ahmed Merabet in Paris and a proud, upstanding example to anyone in a crisis, called his brother’s killers “false Muslims”.)

Thus, did Qtub make enemies of anyone who didn’t agree with him and set the clock back to the days of the Prophet Mohammed, before which the world existed in “a period of ignorance and barbarity”, jahiliyya. When Qutb was hanged on August 29, 1966, Wright’s fastidious book seems to say, al-Qaeda was effectively born.

I reprint the quote above, and the context beneath it, because it kept coming back to me over the past week’s grim events. It might seem glib to accuse radicalised men like the Kouachi brothers of simply being “young, idle and bored” (and it doesn’t account for the actions of Hayat Boumeddiene, partner and accomplice of Amedy Coulibaly in Thursday’s Montrouge shooting and Friday’s Porte de Vincennes siege), but there is a grain of truth in the generalisation, and those in the neglected suburbs of Paris certainly felt – and feel – disenfranchised and apart from the glories of modern, secular French society.

I have no answers to the broader problem, but I do think an inquiring understanding of the situation is required – and a reaction as dignified and nonviolent as the one we’re seeing across France. None of this happened overnight. The warning signs were there. And so much of it leads back to pre- and post-war Western colonialism (Saudi Arabia’s close ties to America were always troubling to more traditionally versed Muslims and when King Fahd allowed US troops to be stationed there in 1990, the camel’s back was figuratively broken). It’s something Nigel Farrage and Marine Le Pen would do well to remember before they open their mouths today, I think.