James Timpson: an inspired appointment

🤣 Laffin’ Kamala | 📚 Merci, non | ☢️ Rusting rivers

In the headlines

Rachel Reeves has unveiled a series of planning reforms that she says will “fix the foundations of Britain’s economy”. In her first speech since taking office, the Chancellor said the government would reinstate compulsory housebuilding targets for local councils and end the “absurd” ban on new onshore wind turbines. A scramble is under way in France to form a new government after yesterday’s election led to a hung parliament. In a shock result, Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally finished third behind a leftwing alliance and Emmanuel Macron’s centrists. More than six million Britons are planning to work from the beach this summer, says The Times. A study by MoneySuperMarket found that a third of employees benefit from “work from anywhere” policies, and that about half of them are planning to take advantage by logging on from overseas. Get ready for “sun, sea and spreadsheets”.

Comment

James Timpson: an inspired appointment

Keir Starmer is looking beyond the usual pool of political talent to fill his Cabinet, says Libby Purves in The Times. We now have an experienced KC as attorney general, Sir Patrick Vallance as science minister and, in an act of “political and practical genius”, businessman James Timpson as minister for prisons, parole and probation. Timpson’s 2,000 shops offer key-cutting, shoe repairs and dry cleaning. He makes decent profits, refers to his 5,600 employees as “colleagues”, and fixes things. It’s hard to think of anything more “reassuringly useful, workaday, efficient and familiarly British”.

More importantly, there is surely no one fitter for this ministry. Timpson pioneered the practice of hiring ex-offenders, chaired the Prison Reform Trust and founded an advisory board linking prisons with employers. His good-humoured, unsentimental practicality is entirely devoid of the “mawkish performative pity” or “vague helpless blaming of ‘society’” that so often afflict do-gooders. He likes work, and understands the dignity and satisfaction it brings. And he knows that not only are our prisons an often unredemptive mess, which condemn offenders to “squalor, boredom and the risk of radicalisation”; they are also full. Timpson argues that just a third of the nearly 100,000 souls currently locked up need confinement. A third could be better employed doing community sentences, as they do in the Netherlands, and the rest mainly just need support through mental illness or personal chaos. Clearly, it’s neither humane nor practical to spend £50,000 a head per year making countless, potentially harmless, people “angrier, more depressed and likelier to relapse”. So good luck to Timpson, a man who sees when things need fixing, “and sets about it”.

Architecture

A thread on X by art writer James Lucas showcasing the world’s most beautiful metro stations has racked up more than 32 million views. It includes the glittering violet ceiling of Toledo in Naples; the cornicing and mosaics in the yellow dome of Komsomolskaya in Moscow; the ornamented vaults of the Soviet-era Alisher Navoiy in Tashkent, Uzbekistan; the raw, unrefined tunnel of Sweden’s Rådhuset carved out of the rock beneath Stockholm; and the “waffle vault” ceiling of Foggy Bottom in Washington DC. See the rest here.

Inside politics

If Joe Biden does stand down in the presidential race, says Axios, Kamala Harris would be “all but unbeatable” for the Democratic nomination. Despite fears over his vice president’s unpopularity, Biden would almost certainly endorse her, and the Obamas and Clintons would likely follow. So potential challengers would not only be saying “not your turn” to the first black, female vice president; they’d also be going against “the sitting president and two former presidents”. And unlike other hopefuls, Harris would have “formidable” campaign apparatus already in place, from the White House, the Democratic National Committee and the Biden-Harris campaign. Donald Trump last week bestowed the vice president with one of his trademark nicknames: in reference to her “giddier moments”, he called her “Laffin’ Kamala Harris”.

Nature

Kutuk River in Alaska’s Gates of the Arctic National Park. Ken Hill/National Park Service

Dozens of rivers in Alaska are turning orange, says Atlas Obscura. Scientists say this “alarming trend” is the result of the waters effectively rusting: as permafrost melts, long-stored acids and metals – including iron – are released into rivers where they interact with oxygen, turning the water from clear blue to a milky orange. There are now 75 carrot-coloured rivers and streams across the state, creating a tangle of ribbons that can be seen from space.

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Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen. Getty

Once again, France is ungovernable

On first glance, says Ben Hall in the FT, Emmanuel Macron’s snap election gamble appears to have paid off. His aim was to break the “populist fever” gripping France and halt the far-right’s “seemingly inexorable rise” – and, sure enough, yesterday’s second round saw Marine Le Pen’s much-hyped National Rally (RN) beaten into third place. The RN moans that this was only because of a “cynical” tactical voting arrangement between Nouveau Front Populaire, the left-wing grouping that unexpectedly won the most seats, and Macron’s Ensemble alliance, which finished a better-than-expected second. But cynical or not, voters “went along with it”.

Yet Macron also wanted this election to be a moment of political “clarification” for France, and “it has provided anything but”. The French Parliament is now split into three more or less evenly sized blocs, all “unwilling to work with each other”. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the “belligerent” leader of the far-left party that dominates the Nouveau Front Populaire, has already said there will be no compromise on the group’s “radical tax-and-spend programme”. Macron will be hoping that Mélenchon’s bloc will eventually fragment, enabling his party to put together a coalition with the socialists, greens and other moderates. But that could take “weeks if not months”, and the centre-left would demand a high price to switch camps – reversing the president’s flagship rise in the pension age, say, or reimposing a wealth tax. All this suggests we could be in for a repeat of the volatile postwar period when “the presidency was weaker and a raucous parliament was supreme”. Now, as then, France looks “ungovernable”.

On the way out

Can’t speak a word: Lily Collins in Netflix’s Emily in Paris

Just 7,000 British teenagers studied A-level French this year, says The Sunday Times, down from 22,700 in 1996. It’s partly because so many French teachers left the UK after Brexit, but also reflective of a wider trend in which kids are shunning languages and arts subjects in favour of those they feel will lead to well-paid careers. More than 101,000 students sat maths A-level this year, for example, while 76,130 took psychology and 43,410 did history. French fell out of the top 10 way back in 1997, and is now down to 25th. Ouf.

Life

Getty

If you ever feel like you’re always the bridesmaid, never the bride, remember the great Albanian novelist Ismail Kadare, who died last week aged 88, and whose irreverent works from behind the Iron Curtain made him one of the few Albanian authors whose novels were translated internationally. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature 15 times, but never took the crown.

Snapshot

Snapshot answer

It’s part of a collection of old Chinese crockery that was found in an attic in Lincolnshire and sold for £162,000 at auction. Gill Stewart came upon a box marked “broken porcelain” while rooting around for Christmas decorations, says The Sun. The pots and bowls were left to her by her grandfather, who collected them while stationed in China during the Boxer rebellion at the turn of the 20th century. Her first instinct was to stick the whole lot in the bin, but she decided to take it to an auctioneer on the off chance it was worth something.

Quoted

“Even if I were travelling with you, your trip would not be mine.”
Paul Theroux

That’s it. You’re done.