Oliver Francis

Thoughts from the spaces in between


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Watching the fire on the horizon

fireIt’s always a jolt coming home from a holiday. The wheels thud on the tarmac – a moment of relief that the plane has been designed, engineered and flown by experts – and then all those mundanities flood back: piles of washing to be done, the overflowing inbox, catching up on what’s been happening in the news whilst you’ve been away.

Hmm, the news. I was in the UK for little more than 24 hours of Brexit fallout before leaving for a week in Italy with my better half, and I’ve been doing my best to keep up. Even though this mess is going to be with us for years, everything seemed to be happening at lightning speed. In the Naples passport queue on Saturday afternoon there were some jokes – and some genuine uncertainty – from the Brits about whether we could still use the EU Citizens’ line, as if the referendum had been some sort of magic spell to cast the demon EU instantly out of us. Continue reading


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Boyle, Blimp and Britishness

I could love a show like yours Danny.

So Danny Boyle’s tough task of having to describe and define Britishness to the world (or at least to itself) seems quickly to be turning into a sort of giant Rorschach test for the nation, with everyone drawing the meaning they want to see in it, or on some counts most did not want to see.

For all the people identifying Voldermort and Cruella de Vil as the Tories attacking the NHS, one commenter on a Guardian thread saw Mary Poppins’ intervention as the private sector saving the NHS from its own failures. And with the Romneyshambles fresh in our mind, it hard not to agree with the New York Times review that who felt it was  “most inspired by a scene from the movie Love Actually, in which Hugh Grant, playing the prime minister, explains [to his dislikeable American guest no less] that Britain is still a great nation because it is “the country of Shakespeare, Churchill, the Beatles, Sean Connery, Harry Potter, David Beckham’s right foot.””

It was of course so much more than that: with its cavalcade of cultural references from the shipping forecast to Kes, Elgar to Brookside, it managed to be simultaneously traditional and progressive – even a little subversive.  It was flat out bonkers but also strangely moving. Continue reading


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Socialists, eugenics and time travel

A bit of a longer post this time. A recentish piece by Jonathan Freedland on socialism’s past enthusiasm for eugenics got me thinking about (sorry that should read ‘has given me an excuse to write about’) one of those literary Fabians, H.G. Wells, and how he provides an interesting case study on this topic.

A neon sign, Venice

At the turn of the 20th Century, Wells was an enthusiastic eugenicist. In 1904 he wrote:

“The way of nature has always been to slay the hindmost, and there is still no other way, unless we can prevent those who would become the hindmost being born. It is in the sterilization of failure, and not in the selection of successes for breeding, that the possibility of an improvement of the human stock lies.”

Eugenics was by no means only a socialist preoccupation, but Freedland rightly recognises that neither was it at odds with the Victorian-Edwardian Fabianism that it prospered under, with their love of Science and Progress and Planning and Engineering, and other grand ideas starting with capital letters. Of all Wells’ fictional work, The Time Machine (1895) is a useful little prism through which to examine the reasons that eugenics held such allure for ‘progressive’ thinkers in the late nineteenth century. Continue reading