What I learned from being Vince Cable’s intern

Photo with Vince

I have almost certainly written more letters and emails as Vince Cable than I have as myself. Back in late 2006/early 2007, I spent four months of my gap year as an intern in his Westminster office. My main job was to draft replies to correspondence for him. Me and another intern would print out our drafts, so there was a big pile of them for him to either sign or make amendments to when he came into the office.

That does not make me a close confidant of his or anything approaching it.

Dozens of other people will have filled the same role since I did. I have spoken to him

So what did I learn from working for the new Lib Dem leader?

 

His public persona is pretty close to the one he presents in a professional setting

If you are expecting anything shocking from this post, you are going to be disappointed. Basically, nothing I saw him do or say jarred with the impression I’d formed from seeing him on the telly.

If you ‘judge a man by how he treats his waiter’ then the judgement on the new Lib Dem leader is positive.

Researchers, interns and caseworkers are the proverbial waiters of Westminster. I heard stories of them being yelled at, given impossible instructions and expected to do strange things unrelated to their job description. Indeed, the waiter comparison is not entirely figurative: one researcher apparently had to wait their boss’ dinner party.

However, none of these stories were about Vince. The people who worked for all seemed to like and respect him, and felt in turn that he respected them. I’d be lying if I said his employees never griped about him – that’s what employees do about their employers – however, the tone of these complaints tended to be affectionate rather than seriously aggrieved, more like pointing out a foible than anything else.

Having a rather distant relationship with technology does not prevent you becoming the Cabinet minister responsible for it

Of those foibles, the one that stands out in my memory is his relationship to technology. I recall another member of staff saying with mild exasperation that ‘he theoretically understands what you can do with computers, but not how’.

The best symbol of this attitude was probably his mobile phone, which he’d kept despite it being several years old, and having a cracked screen, because ‘he knew how to use it’.

This seems rather ironic given that he went on to be Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills which had responsibility for science and technology. He was by all accounts pretty good at that aspect of the job, so maybe specific subject knowledge isn’t all that important a quality in a minister.

Delegation is the heart of good management

His attitude to both his Westminster and Twickenham offices seemed to be to pick people he liked and trusted to run them, and let them get on with it.

Politicians should emphasise common ground (even with people they disagree with)

As an awkward but ‘intellectually self-assured’ teenager my inclination was to reply to emails expressing illiberal views with a forthright explanation of why the correspondent was mistaken. When Vince rewrote these letters, he’d not only tone them down, but also look for points on which he and letter writer did agree, and put them up top. This seemed to make our correspondents less defensive and more open to changing their minds.

It turns out that ‘to tell someone they’re wrong, first tell them how they’re right’ is a well-established approach that’s been discussed since at the 17th century, when the philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote about it, and is now backed up by psychological research.

When I later read that Vince had met his second wife when she asked him a critical question about his views on farm subsidies at a Lib Dem event that didn’t surprise me all that much.

It is really hard to explain things to voters without talking down to them

Because Vince was at the time Shadow Chancellor, a lot of the messages I drafted were to do with economics. I had done an A-level in the subject and was going to study it at uni, so I had been reading an awful lot about it. Thus many of my answers, incorporated the kind of “imagine we both have three burgers and four bananas…” metaphors that are a staple of popular economics writing. Vince would invariably take them out again because they come across as patronising. Explaining positions on complicated issues like economic policy with clarity but without seeming like you are lecturing voters is really tough. Vince has that ability. Not many other people do.

I may still have a career as a ghost writer ahead of me

When I started my internship, the drafts I was writing would have been equally applicable to any Lib Dem MP. They would often come back with a note from Vince outlining a personal touch he wanted added to the final message.

By the end of the internship, I had seen hundreds of such notes, and more often than not I could add these ‘personal’ touches myself before Vince ever saw a draft. The example that springs to mind was beginning an email on the ivory trade with something like: ‘Having lived in Kenya for a number of years, I have a deep respect for these magnificent animals…’

Even if you ignore Vince’s political career, his life has been genuinely eventful

There was a lot of material for these personal asides. He came from a working-class family, he was the father of three children, his father disowned him for marrying someone who wasn’t white and it was years before they were reconciled, he lost his first wife to cancer, he was in the Ibrox stadium during the deadly stampede that killed 66 people, he worked for the Kenyan government, he was chief economist at Shell, and that was all before he was a contestant on Strictly!

The impact of your email to your MP has will be proportionate to the time you put into producing it

Most of the emails Vince received were the product of campaigns by pressure groups and charities. These generally involved getting people to put their name and email address into an online form that would then automatically generate an email to their MP. The result was that we got many identical emails. I remember one email, the sender of which had neglected to delete a line saying ‘<Add details of your personal experience here. It will make more impact on your MP if you do>’. Another came in with a note saying, ‘apologises for sending a standard email, I hope you won’t mind’. I was tempted to start the reply with ‘Not at all. I trust you will not mind receiving a standard reply’.

And that’s the problem with sending an MP the same email as a dozen other people. You will all get the same reply. Each additional message requires very little from the MP who receives it and its impact will be limited.

If you really care about an issue, compose your own unique email. It shows far more commitment than does typing your name and email into a website. Furthermore, it is very possible that your MP and his/her staff will produce a reply specifically your message. That involves them spending additional time thinking about the issue you raised. It’s obviously harder, but there’s a payoff to doing it.

There is a definite pre/post ‘Stalin to Mr Bean’ switch in how well-known Vince was

Before, during and for a few months after I did my internship, if people asked me which MP I had worked for, my answer would leave them blank. Then came Vince’s stint as interim Lib Dem leader and the PMQs that included his jibe that in just a few weeks, Gordon Brown had gone ‘from Stalin to Mr. Bean, creating chaos out of order, rather than order out of chaos.’*

Suddenly not only did anyone who read a broadsheet paper know who he was, but I enjoyed (unearned) kudos from my association. Strangely, the fury over the tuition fees hike – for which he was the Cabinet member responsible – only partially dented this.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8zlZU_Y_vE4

Vince was a remarkably diligent correspondent

I don’t know what the situation is like now, but in 2006/07 if you wrote Vince an email you would get a reply even if:

1) You didn’t live in Twickenham;

2) You were writing about something he couldn’t really help you with and in which he’d never taken a particular interest;

3) You weren’t clear about what you wanted; and

4) You weren’t polite about it.

Indeed, if you replied to that reply, you could find yourself exchanging multiple emails.

At the time, I didn’t understand why he devoted so much effort to randomers. My answer came a few years later, when Susan Kramer, then MP for a constituency that bordered Vince’s, came to speak to my university Lib Dem society. She recounted Vince telling her that shortly after he was first elected, a Labour MP who had been in parliament for ages, warned him against replying to letters because ‘it only encourages the bastards’. I now interpret Vince’s studious replying as the sign of a determination to be a very different kind of MP.

 

 

*Despite the brutality of that put down, my impression is that he actually respected and liked Brown.

The MCU ranked from best to worst

marvel_cinematic_universe_timeline_edit_2_by_bdwilder1-d9ydr0o

*Warning contains mild spoilers and copious anorakiness*

As I have now seen Spider-Man: Homecoming, now seems like an apt time to update my ranking of the films and TV shows in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).

I fear that this will be the last time I am able to do something like this and have it still be comprehensive. The number of TV projects is escalating and I doubt I will be able to keep up.

So, for possibly the final time, let’s take this from worst to best:

#27 Iron Fist (2017)

Although the superhero genre is often criticised as homogenous and unimaginative, virtually all the films and shows on this list bring at least something distinctive to the table. Iron Fist is a sorry exception. It shows you nothing new. It could still have been ok if it was executed well, but it isn’t. The lead is miscast, the plot is diffuse and aimless, and for a series supposedly about martial arts it seems weirdly uninterested in them.

[Check out: Is Iron Fist as Bad as Everyone says?]

#26 The Incredible Hulk (2008)

About as dull as Iron Fist but since it is a film rather than a TV series, it mercifully feels far less interminable.

#25 Iron Man II (2010)

It’s all set up and no pay off. The filmmakers seem to have purposefully avoided anything too interesting lest that prevent them being able to use it later. Perhaps because of this, the story and script are a mess. It wastes Sam Rockwell (a serious crime) but gives us plenty of Gwyneth Paltrow (an even worse crime).

That said, it is the first time that the ambition of what Marvel was doing began to seem real, and the energy of Downey Jnr’s performance pushes along even this misjudged entry in the saga.

#24 Thor: The Dark World (2013)

This exemplifies a lot of the weakness of the MCU: generic villains, theoretically high-stakes that never feel real, a plot driven by MacGuffins, and CGI heavy battles that look like nothing. That said it does have the substantial redeeming feature of lots of scenes that involve Tom Hiddleston delivering dialogue written by Joss Whedon, which is a combination that really works!

#23 Thor (2011)

It has more plot and character development than the Dark World. Otherwise, the problems are similar.

#22 Agents of Shield [series 1] (2013)

For a long time, this series fell very flat: too much TV budget CGI, characters lacking in depth, an arc that seemed to go nowhere, and a tone that was too childish for the material. Sometimes it worked as dumb fun. More often it was just dumb.

Then two-thirds into its run, a development in the films forced the show to reconfigure itself for the better. It gained focus, became darker and ditched most of its dafter habits.

Still that poor two-thirds of a series ways it down a lot.

[Check out: Agents of Shield hits the ground strolling and My agents of shield wish list]

#21 Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

This was the first film to hint that Marvel could do smarter things with the MCU. The by no means straightforward evolution of Steve Rodgers into Captain America is well played with nice twists, like how the military’s first instinct is to use him for propaganda. The best part, however, is Hayley Atwell managing to elevate Peggy Carter from a generic supporting role to the core of the film. However it gets the basics wrong and largely falls flat as a result. The actions scenes are bland beyond words. As a result, the film actually tails off as it reaches its climax.

#20 Iron Man (2008)

Ignoring what it started, this is an efficiently done but mostly generic sci-fi action film. While Downey Jnr is very good as an anti-hero morphing into a hero – and Bridges is a decent villain – it is apparent with hindsight that the Iron Man films have the weakest supporting characters of any strand of the MCU.

#19 Jessica Jones [season 1] (2015)

This should have been way higher than it is. So many individual elements are superlative. Ritter is an engaging lead. Tennant is an even better villain, arguably the best Marvel has ever produced. The show is also thematically ambitious and insightful. Yet it doesn’t work. There are too many duff supporting characters, and the structure is a mess. A fairly simple story did not really stretch to the length of its run, so the screenwriters kept having to derail the plot’s progression.

[Check out: The Tragic Failure of Jessica Jones]

#18 Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

This had exactly the opposite problem to Jessica Jones. It tries to pack too much material into too little time. The result is still entertaining but also rather frustrating.

[Check out: Avengers: Age of Ultron (review)]

#17 Luke Cage [season 1] (2016)

I went with this series more than with Jessica Jones even though it has a lot of the same structural issues (and a pants big bad). The (often slapstick) action scenes are superior, the selection of supporting characters is better, and its stylistic choices are very apt. A lot of fun even though the final episodes are Iron Fist level bad.

[Check out: Magic and Mean Streets]

#16 Agents of Shield [season 2] (2014)

As we’ve already mentioned, this show’s first season varied wildly in quality. Fortunately, the second retained the quality of the superior latter episodes. It also added some genuinely entertaining supporting characters to its ensemble.

#15 Daredevil [season 2] (2016)

It begins with Matt Murdoch taking on the Punisher – perfectly played by Jon Bernthal – and it’s brutal and compelling. But six episodes in, he’s taken into custody, and the season moves onto some far less compelling nonsense about magical ninjas. If those early episodes had been on their own, then it would have been near the very top. As it is they are still quite enough to carry this series to a place above almost all the Marvel/Netflix collaborations.

#14 Doctor Strange (2016)

The plot, jokes and acting provide plenty to enjoy. However, it’s the strange – geddit! – and spectacular visuals that win this film a place high up the pecking order.

#13 Agent Carter [season 2] (2016)

It doesn’t really do much to develop its titular character, nor does it have its focus, clarity or thematic depth of the first season. It does, however, retain its appealing ensemble, period style and effervescent lead. The plot also remains compelling, just not quite as compelling.

#12 Iron Man 3 (2013)

Not only the best of the Iron Man films but also the first demonstration that the Avengers was not a fluke. A lot of people dislike both the twist and separating Tony Stark from the suits for a substantial portion of the runtime. However, I found both of them to be pleasant surprises that kept this instalment from feeling like a re-tread.

#11 Ant Man (2015)

Many of us will mourn the Edgar Wright version of this film that might have existed. Nonetheless, what we got is still a joy. It’s Marvel’s funniest project this side of Guardians. That a lot of that humour depends on visual flair suggests that the film retains at least some of Wright’s spirit.

#10 Agents of Shield [season 3] (2015)

AKA the point that fans of the show got to stop feeling a little embarrassed for liking it. It kicked the quality up a gear for a second time largely because of the acting. Up to this point the central cast had seemed only competent (and sometimes not even that). For much of the second season, they were outshone by supporting characters. However, at this point they really showed they could deliver stellar performances. The best showcase for this is 4722 hours, which sees Elizabeth Henstridge (AKA Simmons) carry a fantastic genre shifting episode almost single-handedly.

#9 Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

It’s still funny, it’s still charming, and it still makes you care deeply about a racoon and a tree. It actually improves on its predecessor in several ways. It makes fuller use of Michael Rooker and gives Dave Bautista more chances at scene stealing. Most importantly however, is that in Kurt Russel it gets a substantial villain upgrade. But inevitably it cannot recreate the surprise of the first one.

#8 Spider Man: Homecoming (2017)

Homecoming has been out in the world for barely a week, yet it already seems like the natural way to tell a Spiderman story. The relationship between it and the Raimi and Webb directed outings, now looks like that between Sherlock Holmes and Murders in the Rue Morgue, you can see what they were going for, but it gets there. It will henceforth seem wholly obvious that Peter Parker should seem like an actual high schooler, that quipping should be a key part of his repertoire, that his adventures should connect up to the rest of Marvel’s heroes, and that the Vulture will now be in the starting lineup of Spiderman villains and that he should be depicted like Michael Keaton plays him in Homecoming.

The only thing that keeps it out of the very top tier of the MCU is that the action sequences are a bit ho-hum. Other than that, everything else is nit picking.

#7 The Avengers (2012)

It is big yet it is also clever. It required staggering craftmanship to have this many moving parts click into place and create an elaborate tapestry of superhero awesomeness. Also made Bruce Banner/the Hulk work on screen for the first time.

#6 Daredevil [season 1] (2015)

Marvel could reasonably be accused – from time to time – of cheesiness. That’s not a danger for Daredevil however. It is a bracing blast of bleakness and brutality. Zack Snyder has given gloominess a bad name, but here it is serving a purpose. We get rich themes from Catholicism to the nature of violence via gentrification. That and spectacularly choreographed fight scenes and Vincent D’Onofrio bringing us the MCU’s best villain.

[Check out: The Lord said run to the devil]

#5 Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

The strange thing about Guardians is that it presents itself as the most cynical of the films in the MCU, yet at the same time, it is – apart from its own sequel – also the most sentimental. That contradiction would undermine most films, but it is the making of Guardians. It has so much humour and brio that it manages to sell you on the idea its core characters are at once both heroes and anti-heroes, who have the most likable qualities of both.

[Check out: Hooked on a feeling]

[Please don’t check out my initial reaction to the first trailer which is rather embarrassing in hindsight.]

#4 Agents of Shield [season 4] (2016)

I’m not kidding. It really is better than the Avengers! It is far more ambitious than it has any right to be. It starts out delivering its own version of Ghost Rider into the MCU and then riffs on Age of Ultron, Blade Runner, Westworld, the Matrix, and the Man in the High Castle. Even more remarkably all of them are executed with aplomb.

#3 Captain America: Civil War (2016)

The Avengers series – of which this is an instalment in all but name – has always been in danger of being crushed by the weight of characters and plots it carries. The scaffolding that holds it up is the dynamic between Evans, Downey jr and Johansson; foregrounding that makes for an excellent story.

#2 Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

The most tightly structured and plotted of the films. It benefits from keeping the scale relatively contained. At least for its first two acts, the Winter Soldier is admirably earthbound, light on CGI and relatively naturalistic in its tone. That is perhaps best embodied in the emphasis on hand-to-hand fights that feel much more real than ones with spaceships, robots and lasers.

#1 Agent Carter [season 1] (2015)

It is a shame that the best part of the MCU is also probably the least viewed.

The most obvious reason for this is Hayley Atwell as the titular hero. She manages to make a character with one foot in the ‘Golden Age’ of Hollywood and another in Whedonesque TV dramas, seem very natural and completely real.

However, the show as a whole is equally excellent. The 1940s spy story is an entertaining genre to play with, and Agent Carter uses it conventions to full effect: it is full of fedoras, poorly lit alleyways, sinister contraptions, and even more sinister Eastern Europeans. However, it also manages to transcend those same conventions. Most obviously by putting a woman at its heart, and rather starkly depicting the injustice of the sexism she faces. It also subtly and effectively depicts a society living in the shadow of a devastating war, as virtually every character is wrestling with some kind of trauma arising from WWII.

Lest that make it sound like a gloomy affair, I should also point out how funny it is. A particular comic treat is the double act of Dominic Cooper as Howard Stark and James D’Arcy as the original human Jarvis, who between them deliver an impressive Jeeves and Wooster pastiche.

If you have not seen it – and given the low viewership figures that led to its untimely cancellation you probably haven’t – then I would urge you to seek it out. It is only a short season – just eight episodes – so it is not a big commitment but it is one that will be repaid many times over.

[Check out: Agent Carter (review)]

 

 

 

I must grudgingly acknowledge that American English is just about tolerable (sometimes)

accents

As it is Fourth of July, an American themed post seems in order. And more specifically, one about American English.

Pride and prejudice

It has been the soundtrack to my life ever since I moved to Korea. If you learn English in this country you learn to say ‘soccer’ and spell ‘colour’ without the ‘u’. In addition, the bulk of Anglophone expats in Korea come from the US and Canada.

Like a lot of Brits (at least of the educated, RP speaking variety) my instinctive reaction to American English, might be charitably described as ‘combative’. I belligerently continue to say things like ‘my trousers got so muddy I had to change them, so I got the lift up to my flat’. [Though I must confess that I all too often catch myself slipping on that final one.]

I also delight in making sure Americans are fully aware of any logical deficiencies I can identify in their dialect. ‘You call the liquid you put in your car gas? And you describe a sport in which players generally hold the ball in their hands as football? No, wonder you guys elected Trump!’*

My more sensible angel

I feel that this kind of thing is justifiable as friendly banter, but is otherwise daft. In Accidence will Happen – essentially a grammar book for people who care more about communicating clearly than catching other people out – the Times journalist Oliver Kamm writes that:

Prince Charles … declared to a British Council audience in 1995 that the American way of speaking was ‘very corrupting’. How so? Well, ‘people tend to invent all sorts of nouns and verbs and make words that shouldn’t be’. The Prince urged his audience: ‘We must act now to ensure that English – and that, to my way of thinking, means English English – maintains its position as the world language well into the next century.’

This is a very common view and is historically perverse. It identifies English with a particular country, and indeed with a particular region of a particular country, and assumes other influences are debased imitators against which barriers need to be arrayed.

But the way that the English language has developed in North America is not corrupting at all. Both American English and the dialect of English that Prince Charles speaks are descendants of a common ancestor. Neither of these dialects is the type of English spoken by Shakespeare and his contemporaries. In some respects, as far as we know, American dialects are closer to that ancestor. The r sound in the name Shakespeare has been lost in the dialect of South-East England, but retained in American speech and many other accents and dialects of English (such as Scottish enunciation).

Of Reds and Greys

There are more subtle arguments than the Prince’s for finding American English threatening. For example, the journalist Matthew Engel wrote an essay for the BBC in which he lamented:

…the sloppy loss of our own distinctive phraseology through sheer idleness, lack of self-awareness and our attitude of cultural cringe. We encourage the diversity offered by Welsh and Gaelic – even Cornish is making a comeback. But we are letting British English wither.

I see the logic of this point and it is part of why I am keen to retain the distinctively British character of my own language.

However, if we were concerned about the diversity of English, then protecting standard British English would be a perverse priority. Engel seems to think it is like the Red Squirrel, which is being driven to extinction by Grey Squirrels, an invasive species from North America. However, the reality is that the dialect I speak is a predator, not prey: It is steadily modifying or even absorbing the UK’s regional dialects.

And as Kamm notes:

It is particularly odd when pedants complain about the assimilation of Americanisms into the language, as Standard English has borrowed extensively from other languages and dialects over centuries.

And as Engel himself has to note, that includes American English:

The Americans imported English wholesale, forged it to meet their own needs, then exported their own words back across the Atlantic to be incorporated in the way we speak over here. Those seemingly innocuous words caused fury at the time.

The poet Coleridge denounced “talented” as a barbarous word in 1832, though a few years later it was being used by William Gladstone. A letter-writer to the Times, in 1857, described “reliable” as vile.

Engels suggests that the present situation is different because the pace of absorption is so much faster now. However, he provides only anecdotal evidence for this assertion, and also proffers counter-examples too:

When it comes to new technology, we often go our separate ways. They have cellphones – we have mobiles. We go to cash points or cash machines – they use ATMs. We have still never linked hands on motoring terminology – petrol, the boot, the bonnet, known in the US as gas, the trunk, the hood.

What’s right with American English

If you will permit me an uncharacteristic piece of generosity, I would actually commend certain aspects of American English as superior. The most obvious and important example is spelling. American spellings arose from a concerted effort to make the system more intuitive. It does that by placing more emphasis on correspondence with spoken English, and less on resembling French and Latin. That seems like an altogether sensible prioritisation.

Of the smaller examples, the one that stands out to me is saying ‘first floor’ to refer to the ground floor, rather than the floor above it. Given that generally the first floor one encounters on entering a building is the ground floor, describing another floor as such is counter-intuitive. Indeed, I was a teenager before I realised the UK didn’t have the American system! It just seemed so much more sensible!