Read more : Read more : Ryan Shorthouse: January 2008

Tuesday, 29 January 2008

Exciting 'periods of change' in tennis and politics

The Aussie Open men's final between Serbian Novak Djokovic and Frenchman Jo-Wilfired Tsonga this weekend was stunning. Even more exciting was that neither Roger Federer nor Rafael Nadal were on court, especially considering they have won the last 11 Grand Slam titles.

It may be the beginning of a new ‘period of change’ in men's tennis, where the Grand Slam finalists are no longer predictable and the top of the ATP rankings is in flux. Following the ‘period of dominance’ of Ivan Lendl and Mats Willander in the 1980's, there was a ‘period of change’ in the early 90's before the Sampras and Agassi era. During this time, the Grand Slams were won by different people each year: Stefan Edberg, Boris Becker, Pat Cash, Michael Stich, Andre Agassi, Ivan Lendl, Pete Sampras, Michael Chang, Andres Gomez and Jim Courier all got their hands on the major tournaments in the first three years of the 90's. Similarly, before Federer and Nadal, there was a ‘period of change’ in the naughties with Lleyton Hewitt, Pat Rafter, Gustavo Kuerten, Marat Safin, Yevgeny Kafelnikov and even a revived Agassi all competing at the top.

The women's game too has had its periods of change, most notably after the retirement of Steffi Graf and following the downfall of the hegemony of the Williams sisters.

These rare periods are extremely exciting, making tennis delightful to follow. Politics too has these periods once in a while. In the last days of the Major government, there was a great ‘period of change’. Conservatives lost their status as the dominant party in British politics and there was great uncertainty surrounding the future political landscape. Politics today is in a ‘period of change’. The contest is wide open. The dominance of New Labour has eroded and the polls drag Cameron's Conservatives from approval ratings of 30% to 45% and back again.

As with tennis, after a ‘period of change’ in politics, a ‘period of dominance’ emerges. But, is this current period just a minor blip, like Sampras losing Wimbledon in 1996? Will Labour re-emerge dominant? Or will Cameron lead a new ‘period of dominance’? And is there a ‘period of change’ across the Atlantic, or will the Bush-Clinton epoch continue?

Sunday, 27 January 2008

Tackling obesity

Over the past decade, the number of British people who are obese has risen dramatically. Nearly a quarter of 11-15 year old boys are now obese, substantially higher than the 14% who were in 1995. By 2050, nearly 60% of the total population will be obese. The Health Secretary's determination to attempt to tackle the obesity epidemic is therefore welcome.

The Department of Health (DofH) published "Healthy Weight, Healthy Lives" last week. One idea in the report was that Government would pay people if they lost weight, ate healthily, and were consistently physically active. This proved deeply controversial. The radio waves were full of angry people expressing their irritation that overweight people get money to keep in shape whilst they pay hundreds of pounds a year for a gym membership

The main issue I have is I don't think it would work. Government cannot make people lose weight. Only people themselves can do that. Obese people already have to face the humiliation of stepping into a society that is obsessed with appearance. Many feel ostracised, lonely and ashamed: if these horrible feelings are not incentives to change eating habits, a DofH cash incentive certainly won't be.

Government, however, can create an environment to help people make choices that will keep them healthy. It can encourage schools to provide at least five hours of sport a week and run extra-curricular activities in the evening. It can improve the safety of public spaces so children have the option of playing outside and burning off energy. It can ban the advertising of junk food to children on the Television so they don’t persistently crave foods that are high in fat, sugar and salt. Government can also increase police numbers on the streets so adults are more likely to feel safe jogging.

To be fair, the Government are committed to some of these ideas. But it is wrong in its assumption that it can make people lose weight. What it can do is create circumstances that will increase the chances of individuals making choices to improve their health.

Thursday, 24 January 2008

Hillary has the personality and the policies

It's getting heated among the Democrat front runners. Like squabbling siblings, Clinton and Obama were attacking each other in a live debate in South Carolina on Monday. How amateurish, the critics will cry.

Well actually, it was much more exciting than anything I've seen from McCain et al. And, crucially, Hillary actually came across well. She was cutting, dishing the dirt on Obama's past, but brushed it aside with humour: "We're just getting started", she said, which was met with laughter. Obama was too defensive and appeared uncomfortable. The former First Lady is proving increasingly more down-to-earth, human and likable. Voters are warming to her.

Hillary also stands out because of her policies. You need a leader who doesn't just talk about change, but demonstrates how they will deliver it. Obama's campaign is missing that.

Saying you want "One Nation" without demonstrating how you will do it reduces a campaign to the promotion of a new lifestyle choice, which appeals only to affluent, metropolitan voters: "Yes", they think, "We should care more about the poor. That's my New Years Resolution alongside being a vegetarian". A caring attitude towards the more vulnerable in society is admirable and should be encouraged. But mere slogans don't really sell for the working-classes: they want to know what you will do to make "One Nation" happen, what measures you will take to increase the chances of their children getting a college education and protecting their communities from crime.

Hillary does explain how she will establish her vision. That is arguably why she is doing better among blue-collar workers with lower incomes while Obama fairs well with young, wealthy liberals who are not so dependent on public services.

Vision needs policy. Hillary gets that.

Wednesday, 23 January 2008

Women of Troy at the National Theatre

Director Katie Mitchell returns to the National Theatre with a modern adaptation of Euripides’ Women of Troy. 2,400 years on, the play is still one of the most potent reminders of the pain endured by those who have no choice about how war affects their lives. Troy has fallen to the Greeks. Husbandless and fatherless, the women await their humiliating fate inside a warehouse on the Trojan docks, their time spent on purposeless activity- smoking, doing their make-up and waltzing to a song that occasionally plays from an old radio.

Nearly five years since the invasion of Iraq, the British troops now gradually withdrawing, Mitchell chooses an apt time to remind us of the cruel reality of war for the disempowered and voiceless. The fourth wall between the stage and audience episodically becomes an imaginary large door, opening slowly to let the suffering chorus speak to the world outside. It is a clever symbol of the attitude of those who watch war from afar: shocked for a second, but quickly forgetting. The costumes used- dark and Victorian, like from an old film- captures that uncomfortable truth war’s spectators feel: that the torment of the victims is alien, even fictional.

Mitchell encapsulates Euripides’ pessimism about war brilliantly. The dim lighting and metallic interior in the wide-framed Lytteltton Theatre accentuate the emptiness and hopelessness of the women’s situation. Helen, who is blamed for Troy’s downfall because of her promiscuity with the Greeks, is caged above the women. All the doors in the warehouse are locked. And when the generals come to take Andromache’s baby, she wanders round the room trying to open all the doors, pathetically whimpering, the actress Anastasia Hille effectively demonstrating the powerlessness of the women and the predictability of their fate.

In representing how distant war’s victims are from our everyday lives, the director could have thwarted any connection between the women and the audience, thereby strangling any sympathy we might have felt for the characters. This is not so; there are some extremely engrossing and poignant moments. In particular, Sinead Matthew’s Cassandra runs around the stage upon receiving news that she will be Agamemnon’s wife, burning her bouquet and stripping- even singing the Carpenter’s Close to You. This makes uncomfortable and distressing viewing.

Whaling women is difficult to pull off, risky for any director. Michael Attenborough’s version of Anthony and Cleopatra at the RSC in 2002 missed the mark, the Queen of Egypt frightfully pantomimic. Not here. The women get melodrama just right. Especially Hecuba, the old Queen of Troy played by Kate Duchene, who speaks with raw emotion when falling to her knees in a final moment of despair when Paris’s son Astyanax - her grandchild- is killed. There are no little sniggers or wandering eyes in the audience during this tricky speech.

With a female dominated crew and cast, it is easy to imagine that men could have become the object of disgust. But there was no such feminism. In this, men are not simply war-hungry and the source of all hardship. Michael Gould as Talthybius, the Greek functionary, is embarrassed when delivering Andromache’s disfigured dead baby. He does not treat the women cruelly. Rather, he is patient, formal, ashamed. In a way, he is a victim too- of his inability to refuse brutal orders.

What Women of Troy is condemning is unchallenged authority; it is criticising those who take decisions without seeing the anguish of the most vulnerable and innocent. Mitchell successfully draws out Euripides’ timeless truth that the real losers of war are not the surrendering or defeated army, but the little people who have lost their homes, their families and their hope.