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This week: secret millionaires, stolen songs, and the coughing major.
HELLO PRIME MINISTER
Fascinating historical artefact: the civil service briefing note for the incoming Labour Prime Minister in 1997. Couple of things struck me. First, as the excellent Catherine Haddon notes, the complexity and breadth of decisions that an incoming PM has to get to grips with is intimidating (imagine Corbyn trying to get his head round it, would he even try?). Second, while it's well written - a model of clarity - the tone seems slightly off to me. All that underlined "I think/I suggest..." strikes a jarring note. I imagine Blair, and possibly anybody who has just been elected by the British people to head the government of the UK, might find that kind of thing a tad patronising. It might have contributed to PM Blair's fractious relationship with the civil service.
Sylvia Bloom died in 2016 at the age of 96. She was a legal secretary from Brooklyn, and worked at the same law firm for 67 years. When the men who ran the firm wanted to buy stocks, they would instruct her to do it on their behalf. Whenever she did so, she would buy a much smaller amount of the same stock. Over time, she amassed quite a portfolio. She never talked about it, and she lived frugally until the end, so it came as a juddering surprise to the executor of her will when he discovered she had accumulated nine million dollars. Sylvia left some to her family, and most to charity; she directed that the bulk of her fortune go to scholarships for needy students. The report, in the NYT, includes more astounding examples of secret millionaires.
Like all right-thinking people, including my friend Alex Heminsley, I have a massive crush on Rukmini Callimachi, who covers ISIS for the New York Times (I seem to be giving a lot of exposure to that little known media outlet this week). It began when I heard this brilliant Longform interview. She's brave and accomplished and also warm - despite her grim line of work, laughter just bubbles out of her. I'm happy to say she now has a podcast, called Caliphate, and it's terrific. She doesn't host it, but it's about her work. This week I listened to episode two, which features extracts from an interview she with a Canadian ISIS recruit. It's absolutely fascinating on the sales techniques used by ISIS recruiters, and on how ordinary, happy kids from stable families get drawn in.
News of a new biography of Paul Simon prompted me to look at some performances of his sublime song, American Tune (my favourite might be this one) . Its beautiful, consoling melody is stolen, in part, from Bach, who stole it, in turn, from an earlier German composer, Hans Leo Hassler. The journey of the tune, from Europe to America, mirrors the subject of the song, an immigrant recently arrived in the promised land (Simon himself is the descendant of Hungarian-Jewish immigrants). As usual, the lyrics are exquisite, and exquisitely fitted to the tune (the bit where he sings "the Statue of Liberty" gets me every time). It's unsentimental. There's no fortune, and no cheap uplift. The American dream has turned out to be a thankless slog. The singer is bone-tired and lonely and has to get up for work tomorrow. But in the middle eight (for which Bach can claim no credit) he dreams of flight, and the melody soars with the words, before the song sings him to his rest.
I went to see the play Quiz, by the disturbingly prolific James Graham, which is about the true story of a fraudulent (OR WAS HE?) contestant on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? It's huge fun. I'm not sure what it's about, other than the case itself, but it's such a good story I didn't much mind. I wrote about the case of the coughing major in Born Liars. I'm still not sure if he cheated or not.
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