John Harris

Journalist & Author

Archive for October, 2018

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Peterloo shaped modern Britain, as much as any king or queen did | John Harris

Tuesday, October 30th, 2018

Mike Leigh is right to call the massacre a ‘major, major event’ – it can teach us much about our country today

“Several mounds of human beings still remained where they had fallen, crushed down, and smothered. Some of these [were] still groaning … others, with staring eyes, were gasping for breath, and others would never breathe more … Persons might sometime be noticed peeping from attics and over the tall ridgings of houses, but they quickly withdrew, as if fearful of being observed, or unable to sustain the full gaze of a scene so hideous and abhorrent.”

The words are those of Samuel Bamford, the weaver, writer and advocate of universal suffrage who in August 1819 witnessed first-hand what history came to know as the Peterloo massacre. The site in central Manchester where it happened, known back then as St Peter’s Field, is marked by a plaque on the wall of what was once the Free Trade Hall but is now the city’s Radisson hotel, a luxurious flophouse I mostly associate with hordes of boozing delegates at modern political party conferences. How many passersby ever look up at that tiny red circle and think about the awful day when “a peaceful rally of 60,000 pro-democracy reformers, men, women and children, was attacked by armed cavalry resulting in 15 deaths and over 600 injuries”?

One lesson runs through Peterloo’s legacy – the ruling class is not some phantasm of leftie demonology, but a real thing

Related: The spectres spooking Britain that Philip Hammond can’t banish | Andrew Rawnsley

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For rock music to survive it will have to cut back on testosterone | John Harris

Wednesday, October 24th, 2018

The leather trousers, the cars – it once seemed thrilling but now looks ridiculous. Thankfully guitar sales to women are soaring

One of the best albums released this year is called Tell Me How You Really Feel. It was created by Courtney Barnett, a 30-year-old singer-songwriter from Melbourne in Australia recently described as “the ultimate paradoxical millennial”.Her writing is fresh, eloquent and full of surprises. One of the album’s best songs is aimed at a male internet troll, and has a chorus that paraphrases Margaret Atwood: “I wanna walk through the park in the dark/Men are scared that women will laugh at them … Women are scared that men will kill them.” It is called Nameless, Faceless, which has obvious echoes of Nirvana’s 1991 track Endless, Nameless – and highlights the fact that one of Barnett’s clear inspirations is Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, who once wrote of “the comfort in knowing that women are the only future in rock’n’roll”.

At long last, this might finally be coming true. In September the annual Mercury prize was won by Wolf Alice, the London-based quartet whose creativity seems to be chiefly driven by their guitarist and singer, Ellie Rowsell. Any list of contemporary musicians who are doing interesting and iconoclastic things with rock(ish) music ought to be brimming with women’s names: Barnett, Rowsell, the genre-defying American solo artist St Vincent, the Anglo-French group Savages, the all-female Brixton band Goat Girl. And last week there was news of a remarkable development at music’s grassroots: according to the guitar manufacturer Fender, 50% of “all beginner and aspirational players” of the instrument in the UK and US are now women. This apparently chimes with the findings of research in 2016, which were linked to the popularity among girls of Taylor Swift. Though she is not seen with a guitar nearly as much these days, the trend has continued. This is nothing but a good thing, and it would be even better if the gender balance were tilted even more.

Related: Half of beginner guitarists in US and UK are female, survey says

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‘We’ll have space bots with lasers, killing plants’: the rise of the robot farmer

Saturday, October 20th, 2018

Tiny automated machines could soon take care of the entire growing process. Fewer chemicals, more efficient – where’s the downside?

In a quiet corner of rural Hampshire, a robot called Rachel is pootling around an overgrown field. With bright orange casing and a smartphone clipped to her back end, she looks like a cross between an expensive toy and the kind of rover used on space missions. Up close, she has four USB ports, a disc-like GPS receiver, and the nuts and bolts of a system called Lidar, which enables her to orient herself using laser beams. She cost around £2,000 to make.

Every three seconds, Rachel takes a closeup photograph of the plants and soil around her, which will build into a forensic map of the field and the wider farm beyond. After 20 minutes or so of this, she is momentarily disturbed by two of the farm’s dogs, unsure what to make of her.

‘It could be used in the wrong way. You could have entire states in the US with no one in them’

A laser bot can recognise 800 types of weed and destroy them with precision targeting

In the US, robots harvest lettuce and strawberries. In France, they prune grapevines

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Politicians may finally be catching on: towns now hold the key to Britain’s future

Friday, October 19th, 2018

Over eight years of their Anywhere but Westminster series – and eight years of austerity – John Harris and John Domokos have learned a few things about the malaise of towns – and what it means for the future of the country

“These streets were once full of spirit, and hope. A proud community, where an honest day’s work could earn you a decent day’s pay. Years of austerity have ripped the heart out of this place. But that’s just part of the story. This has been decades in the making. We lost the factories, we lost the jobs, we lost confidence in our community. We lost control.”

So runs the introduction to a short film titled Our Town, shot in places such as Mansfield and Hastings (and, somewhat confusingly, the cities of Liverpool and Glasgow) and released three weeks ago by the Labour party. In terms of political strategy, it is a clear attempt to push Labour’s message into places where it has been underperforming, and address its supposed “towns problem” (more of which in a moment). Viewed from another perspective, its three and a half minutes are a brisk and very powerful tour through the three-decade failure of what some people call neoliberalism. More than anything, it vividly evokes one of modern Britain’s starkest cultural divides: the one that separates our bigger, most successful cities from hundreds of comparatively disadvantaged towns, and which exploded so spectacularly in the vote on whether or not Britain should leave the EU.

There is something about towns – in England in particular – that often makes them difficult territory for the modern left

Related: Made in Stoke-on-Trent – Episode 6: The Mother Town

Stories are easily told in terms of extremes. But places are always much more complicated than they might first appear

Everywhere we go, people talk about the fate of their town centres with amazing passion, and frustration

In towns, austerity fuses with all those boarded-up shops to confirm people’s sense that they are still being ignored.

Young people who are not happy in towns tend to leave. It’s the older generations who stay, and feel changes more deeply

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We once marvelled at Neil Armstrong. Now space is a playground for the rich | John Harris

Thursday, October 18th, 2018

Nasa’s greatest feats were a triumph for mankind. History will be less kind to today’s space pioneers

The promised journey is from Earth to the edge of space, rather than London Euston to Crewe, but the story of Richard Branson’s company Virgin Galactic still has echoes of a bad passenger experience on his trains. For the best part of a decade, his potential customers have been waiting for an experience that was meant to arrive in 2011, with only one certainty to hang on to: the tickets are eye-wateringly expensive. The price for Virgin rocket travel now apparently hovers at around £250,000, and reports suggest that among those patiently waiting to climb aboard are Katy Perry, Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga.

Related: Virgin Galactic space shot is go ‘within weeks, not months’

Related: The first human on Mars should be a woman – we deserve stardust too | Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett

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