I can’t quite put my

I can’t quite put my finger on why I love Italo Calvino. The first thing I read was Six Memos for the Next Millennium. These are lectures that Calvino wrote in the year before his death in 1985 trying to explain the thinking behind his own writing. He actually only finished five: lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility and multiplicity. Consistency was to be the sixth.

The reason I came to read this ‘wonderful little book’ was that one person whom I respect very much recommended it to me as a way of thinking about principles for policy making in the 21st century. Fine I thought. But then a year later another person who I respect very much made the same recommendation. I bought a copy. I’ve been trying for the last year to translate Calvino for a policy audience. I’ve tried in three or four different contexts, and every time I’ve been unhappy with the results and pulled it from the final report. Neither of the two people who recommended it to me have published anything on Calvino either to my knowledge.

The trouble is that writing specific things in the framework of Calvino is like nailing jelly to the ceiling. While his memos instinctively make sense, perfect sense, as desirable principles for government, in fact for life in the new millennium, as soon as you try to describe what they might mean they seem to evaporate. Like the idea of love, they change as you try to describe them in words. Unless you’re Calvino. When you examine how he describes the memos you realise he hardly does it at all. He describes what he means by describing other things, leaving a gap for you to fill in. It’s a common Calvino technique.

The first of his novels that I picked up was Once Upon a Winter’s Night a Traveller. Mind expanding would be one phrase to describe it. The book opens with a character walking into a bookshop to buy a Calvino novel. The story changes and morphs from there as you go through stages of believing that the book is one of a set of different but related stories that you have been hoodwinked into reading through switched covers or publisher’s errors. For a while you have the disconcerting realisation that Calvino is telling you what you will think, just before you think it. Another dimension is added as you realise there’s another character in the book who is someone else reading the book at the same time as you and you develop a relationship with them. When you put the book down you realise you’ve been sucked into not just another world, but another multidimensional universe.

And then I read Invisible Cities, perhaps Calvino’s most famous book. It’s nothing like any other novel I’ve ever read. It’s made up of tens of short pieces, stories related by Marco Polo to his emperor Kubla Khan. Polo has been commissioned to visit all of the world’s great cities and report back on what it is that makes those cities great. Each story is very light, each on it’s own barely worthy of attention, interesting but insubstantial. But each so light that you sometimes feel as if you’re floating above the cities he describes. Until you realise that every story, every city that Marco Polo describes is one city. It is Venice. Layer upon layer is added to the description of the city until you have such a rich sensory picture of what makes a city great that it is as if you were there. Through his lightness, Calvino draws you in.

With each week I read more Calvino and find myself increasingly drawn in. I love the way he leaves so much for you to complete in your own mind, giving you just enough things to play with to create your own complex picture of what’s going on. I love his way of constantly flitting between being funny and witty and serious and hopeless. At times he even pulls off all these sensations at the same time.

I’ll keep on reading and rereading Calvino for many years to come.

Last week was a strange

Last week was a strange one. We all knew it was coming, but the double whammy of a commons vote on university tuition fees and the release of the Hutton Inquiry has created ripples that will be felt for years. If Blair had come off badly in either, let alone both, he would have been out of a job within weeks.

I caught the tuition fees vote in all its ridiculous glory on TV. The shuffling of the tellers from left to right telling you that the ‘ayes’ had it before the words were uttered. The question was, by how many. It was close — so close that when the numbers were read out there was a sharp intake of breath around the chamber.

But there wasn’t time to think about the closeness of the vote because a couple of hours later somebody was on the phone to Trevor Kavanagh at the Sun to leak the findings of Hutton. The morning headlines were dominated by the leak rather than the vote and the a few hours later it was official. The BBC got a drubbing, the Government a complete letting off.

The official release of the report didn’t make great TV. Hutton’s judgement was an hour and a half of him reading from a pile of A4 sheets of paper, not once did he look into the camera. Try as the director might to vary the image with cutaways to the audience, it was essentially a very boring event.

The fisticuffs between Blair and Howard in the Commons were more entertaining. I suppose you can’t really blame Howard for a bit of desperation. That morning as he arrived in the office to see the report in advance and started turning the pages he would have realised very quickly that any chance of winning the next election was slipping away through his fingers.

His response (and that of Charles Kennedy) has been to call for a further independent inquiry. I suppose I already knew there was a paucity of ideas in Westminster but to me that shows a complete lack of imagination. The independence of any one person is a myth. Each of us has our own influences and mindset that will shape our judgement. And the same is true of judges.

In this case ‘independence’ was vested in one man, 72 years of age, a self confessed obsessive and loner who has been in the same profession for nearly half a century. I have no doubt that he has one of the finest understandings of the law in the land, but remember this wasn’t a court case, nobody was accused of a criminal act. It was a case of defending reputations and finding out who to trust and I would argue that a man of the law might not be the best person for the job.

For starters he’s never worked for an organisation. Never been part of a culture where you have a shared sense of norms and values. As a friend pointed out to me, the judgement treats the BBC and the Government as if they were exactly the same. It doesn’t take into account the fact that each has a very different culture. There are totally different expectations both unwritten and unspoken in each institution. And there are cultures within those cultures. The difference between working on the Today programme and Newsnight is massive. The difference between working for the MoD and Number 10 is also huge.

On Sunday afternoon Kevin Marsh sent out an email to subscribers to the Today programme that shows something of the culture of the BBC and of the Today programme in particular. It’s hard to imagine something similar coming from Number 10. It wouldn’t fit with the carefully crafted image of earnest, besuited, by-the-book policy making that they’ve developed since moving into the cul-de-sac just off Whitehall.

Over the next few years, the institution most likely to lose the trust of the public is the law. It’s expensive and increasingly seen as crooked, greedy and arrogant. Interestingly the institution charged with reform of the legal system, The Department for Constitutional Affairs is one of the lowest profile departments in government. I doubt it will remain that way.

The government may have won in this particular case but by diminishing trust in the BBC (and the media in general) Hutton has inadvertently riled an entire profession. As Kevin Marsh’s email says they’re ‘not going away’. If anything they’re more determined to get their own back. After seven years in power, any government has skeletons in its closet. Hutton means the intensity of journalists trying to open doors to find them will only increase.