Digested week: Johnson's adult learning drive takes me back to the 90s


David Nicholls is one of those authors that critics sometimes seem to underrate. Possibly because his novels always spend a long time on the bestseller lists. He doesn’t just have a sharp eye for story, his characters also have real depth and his books are a delicate balance between warmth and edge. No one ever gets too easy a ride. Us, which Nicholls has adapted into a Sunday night TV series – we’ve already binge watched all four episodes on iPlayer – is no exception. I can’t be the only bloke who saw the first five minutes and went into a cold sweat, wondering whether my wife was planning to tell me that our marriage was over because she now found me just a bit too dull and predictable. Before the coronavirus, my wife and I were both out at work during the week and had more of a social life at weekends, so I like to imagine that I may have appeared rather more interesting than I really am. Since March though, my wife and I have both been working from home and I can’t help feeling she must have noticed how boring I am because I do pretty much the same things every day. She did make a point of asking me during the second episode what big trip – other than a visit to Minneapolis to see our daughter – I would like to make before I died. My mind initially went blank, before hastily coming up with a ceramics tour of Japan. I think that was a good enough answer, so I may have earned myself a temporary reprieve. The other thing that has struck me about watching Us is how, even though it was filmed only last year, it seems like a different world with people taking travel and touch as normal. I wonder how soon it will be before we take them both for granted again when the pandemic is over.


Back in the 1990s and the early years of the 2000s I worked on the Guardian as a writer for the regular Tuesday education supplement, which – pre-internet – had about 17 pages of features and interviews along with dozens of pages of advertisements for jobs in the education sector. We were a great team and would regularly cover all aspects of education from schools to universities and further education colleges. Inevitably, over the years, the same stories would come round time and time again, one of which would be some minister deciding that the government needed to do more for those who left school with few academic qualifications and to promote parity of esteem between universities and vocational training. At one point the education department took it so seriously that it renamed itself the Department for Education and Skills, and I have lost count of the number of articles I wrote that involved going to an adult training college to watch a minister try his hand at bricklaying or plumbing before making a speech about giving the country the skills it needed to compete with other countries. That would generally be the last we heard about a levelling-up agenda until the next time. It was the uncontentious go-to policy for any government short of ideas. So when Boris Johnson went down to Exeter College today to lay a few bricks, make precisely the same speech and to reannounce the same money that had already been earmarked for the training budget, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of deja vu. Given that he couldn’t even remember his own rules for the coronavirus restrictions, I’d be astonished if his promises on adult learning lasted longer than the time it took him to get back to London. There again, if he does genuinely make even a small difference to vocational training, he will be the first minister to have done so in over 30 years.

Ursula von der Leyen
Ursula von der Leyen: ‘These Brexit talks are toxic.’ Photograph: Johanna Geron/AFP/Getty Images
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Shortly after the end of the game between Liverpool and Arsenal on Monday night, the former Manchester United player-turned-pundit, Roy Keane got into an argument with Liverpool’s manager, Jurgen Klopp. It all seemed a bit academic as Liverpool had won 3-1 in relative comfort, but Keane was upset that Klopp’s side didn’t play more cautiously to hold on to its lead rather than continue to press for more goals. Writing as a Spurs fan, whose team has only won two league cups in the past 30 years, I may not be the best person to judge who is right but I’d still take Klopp’s style over Keane’s any time. In all the years my team has won next to nothing, I’ve enjoyed the Harry Redknapp and the Mauricio Pochettino years the best. These were sides that continued to press throughout the 90 minutes and even when it all went horribly wrong, I could still forgive them for attempting to play with panache. When we beat Southampton 5-2 the other week, I couldn’t help thinking that our current manager, José Mourinho, would rather we had seen the game out 2-0. When we were 1-0 up against Newcastle at the weekend deep into injury time, I had this feeling we were going to concede. Even if it was to an absurd penalty call. Still, at least this time I didn’t make the mistake of watching it. We were out to lunch and though I had brought my iPad with me, I didn’t switch it on. In these stressful Covid times, I’ve got to do everything possible to nurse my mental health. Starting with Spurs. Still, as we’ve just beaten Chelsea in a penalty shoot-out – I’ve lost count of the number I’ve seen us lose – I can feel myself unexpectedly warming to Mourinho. I am that fickle.

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I’d always fondly imagined Tom Stoppard’s life to be impossibly glamorous. Long lunches and stimulating conversation with famous people interspersed with a few hours work knocking out some bons mots for yet another critically successful play. However, Hermione Lee’s new biography reveals a rather more three-dimensional portrait. Because in between writing such plays as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Arcadia and Leopoldstadt, Stoppard has made a very nice living – up to $100,000 a week – working anonymously on such films as Beethoven (the mutt not the composer), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and the Bourne Ultimatum. He even wrote the immortal line in 102 Dalmatians, “You may have won the battle but I’m about to win the wardrobe.”

Lee writes that Stoppard took on these screen-writing gigs purely for the cash: apparently having three wives and several long-term affairs is ruinously expensive. After all, who doesn’t need a Provençale bolt-hole to meet with a lover? But it wasn’t so much the money that got to me – though I must confess to a certain amount of envy and would like it on record that my daily rate is considerably less than Tom’s – it was the energy. Just how has Stoppard managed to cram so much into his life? My day begins with one ear open for a minister saying something stupid on the radio and continues in pretty much the same vein: looking for some piece of political nonsense or hypocrisy to turn into an 800-word sketch. And by the time I’ve done that, I’m pretty much knackered and haven’t the brain power to work on side projects. Which is something of an issue at the moment, as I am under contract to write two books. I keep telling myself I will have more headspace when the pandemic is over. I just hope I’m right.

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Woke up this morning to find out that both Donald Trump and Melania have tested positive for the coronavirus. After an initial WTF reaction, my next thought was how many of his supporters will think this is fake news or a plot to derail the US election. That’s how weird the news cycle has become. Normally at this time of year I am off to Birmingham, Bournemouth, Brighton, Liverpool or Manchester for the annual party conferences, but for obvious reasons they have all been cancelled and put online where most people – reporters included – have mostly ignored them. This weekend was meant to be the start of the Tory party conference and even though there will be nobody attending and Boris Johnson will presumably be delivering his speech in a near-empty room, I have still had to be security cleared to get access to the event. I can only assume the Conservative party knows something about my cyber hacking skills that I don’t. It’s hard to believe that Johnson’s speech will outdo the one in which Theresa May was presented with her P45, lost her voice and had the set collapse around her for drama, but harder still to know what he can say to the Tory faithful that will cheer them up. There may be a few who think that sending asylum seekers to Ascension Island, building a wave machine in the channel to repel small boats is what they voted for or putting Chris Grayling in charge of some decommissioned ferries is the answer to the country’s immigration problems, but most will have just thought that Dominic Cummings has been organising psychedelic brainstorming away days. Nor will Boris have anything positive to say about the coronavirus: as a pilot for Operation Moonshot – the government’s plan to do 10m saliva tests a day – all Salford residents were expected to have been tested by now, but the Manchester Evening News reports that the trial has not even reached 250 people a day. Maybe he’s got better news on Brexit and the economy. On second thoughts …

Digested week: Where to start?



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