Prospect DECEMBER 16, 2009 - by Brian Eno & others


Julie Burchill, Eric Hobsbawm, Peter Hitchens, Brian Eno, Phillip Blond, Lorraine Candy and many more pick out the most overrated and underrated events, ideas and people of the year.


Vince Cable

Vince is a master of the pithy soundbite. But opinions are cheap. The real test is when one has to take decisions. Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling stared down the barrel of a gun and, at least for the twenty-four hours when they nationalised the banks, delivered. Vince's test came when he published his instant book on the financial crisis, The Storm. He was found wanting. The final section, "The Future, A Road Map", is no such thing, just a piece of flimflam. We love you, Vince, but let's not overdo it. - Peter Bazalgette, television producer

Google Wave

Betting against a Google product is scary. This, after all, is the company that revolutionised search and runs the best online email service. But Google Wave, a "real-time communication and collaboration" tool designed to help people work on projects together in real time, has left many nonplussed. It's been described as email on steroids, which, since email's beauty is its simplicity, may be the trouble. - Jim Giles, US-based science writer

Anthony Gormley's 4th Plinth

To be fair, interest in Anthony Gormley's dreadful Fourth Plinth did not extend past it's first day - but that was enough. The headlines in every national newspaper and coverage on rolling news channels are how arts council mandarins judge the success of a public art project nowadays. By day two, everyone had forgotten about it, except the people taking part - a mixture of show-offs and political protestors - and Sky Arts, who had this live feed running. What I hated most of all, was the way critics compared it to Reality TV. Really? Gormley's plinth had nothing to do with Reality TV. His plinthers were selected at random by a computer programme - while the participants in a Reality TV show are carefully cast by teams of cynical television executives, looking for character, conflict, drama etc. That's why Reality TV is so exciting. Gormley's Plinth was boring because it wasn't Reality TV. - Ben Lewis, Prospect's art critic

Anish Kapoor

One of the chief exhibits at Anish Kapoor's Royal Academy show was a gun worked by compressed air that at twenty-minute intervals fired a cylinder of red wax across the gallery. The wax hit the wall and made a small mess. The catalogue noted solemnly that Kapoor had first exhibited his gun in Vienna - "the city in which Freud established psychoanalysis." Also the city that gave us the sachertorte, but so what? - Ian Jack, Guardian columnist

Undervalued Chinese yuan

The magic bullet effect of a higher yuan is overrated. Letting the undervalued yuan appreciate, as the EU and US want, would be a good thing. But it does not guarantee a reduction in China's trade surplus. In 2005 China did allow the yuan to appreciate and that coincided with the first years of China's ballooning trade surplus. - Isabel Hilton, editor of

Sam Mendes

The jury is still out on Sam Mendes as a filmmaker - Revolutionary Road was his best movie since American Beauty - but his image as a golden boy of British theatre is looking suspect. He ran the Donmar Warehouse brilliantly for ten years, but his latest project is an unsatisfactory ensemble of British and American actors who have performed Chekhov and Shakespeare with the jumbled tonality of modern and baroque instruments playing the same piece: The Cherry Orchard was bland, The Winter's Tale was dull. When will he prove himself again by running a major company? Or is he lost in Hollywood photo-shoots with wife Kate Winslet? - Michael Coveney, theatre critic

David Cameron

The heir to Blair is having a free ride from a media that has already lazily anointed him. His huge expenses claims for the mortgage on a country house he could easily afford, his abrupt withdrawal of a referendum pledge on Lisbon, his dictatorial behaviour towards his party, and his courting of Murdoch, would all have been excoriated if normal rules applied. - Peter Hitchens, Mail On Sunday columnist

Damien Hirst's "Blue Paintings" at the Wallace Collection

Damien Hirst's new paintings - the first executed in his own hand since his very early spot paintings - were universally panned by the critics. Brian Sewell called them "fucking dreadful" while Tom Lubbock said he "can't paint" and Searle called the pictures "a memento mori for a reputation." I avoided reviewing the exhibition, because, I follow the principle, 'never kick a man when he's down.' But the other critics were still being too generous. These were the worst paintings ever exhibited in a public gallery (except for the RA's Summer show, of course) and they were a suicide note from the artist. With their witlessly painted skulls, butterflies and flowers, they were a tragic public confession of the impoverishment of not only this artist's imagination, but the imagination of our whole culture, during the last decade. - Ben Lewis, Prospect's art critic

The Poor

They might always have been with us, but now, thanks to Phillip Blond's idea that we must "recapitalise the poor" (that is, give them more money), the term is back in fashion. But there was a reason new Labour abandoned the label, and the crude focus on income inequality that went with it, for the more useful and less stigmatising phrase "social exclusion." The poor is a poor replacement. - James Crabtree, Prospect's managing editor

The death of Michael Jackson

The premature death still more than the troubled life of this bizarre figure was sad. But its portentous treatment by popular media plumbed depths of absurdity. The Today programme was reduced to soliciting the views of Rev Al Sharpton, whom it described euphemistically as a "civil rights leader". - Oliver Kamm, leader writer for the Times

John Mortimer

If you'd dropped a bomb on John Mortimer's memorial service at Southwark Cathedral in November, you'd have stood a good chance of killing every phoney in London. Neil Kinnock, Kathy Lette, Peter Mandelson - it was a bullshitters' beano. The old fraud's been dead since January, but his sulphurous whiff lingers on. There were many reasons to dislike the overrated Mortimer. He was a stupid old snob and a rubbish writer. And he supported the right of humans to torture animals - that is what fox-hunting is. - Julie Burchill, writer

The white working class

The idea of the neglected white working class deserves less respect. For a start, eighty-nine per cent of Britons are white and two-thirds self-identify as working class - so they are the majority. But they comprise so many sub-groups of varying fortunes that the category itself is useless. Moreover, all beyond a small slice at the bottom have grown richer and more powerful of late. The Resolution Foundation has shown that, under Labour, the average lower paid worker has got more from the state in benefits and services than they pay in tax (for the first time in decades). Not listened to? Eh? From talk radio through tabloids to the polls and focus groups that politicians pore over - never has the voice of the white working class rung louder. Yet the perception of abandonment is real, especially at the very bottom. Why? It's mainly a cultural thing. Mass immigration; the decline of factory work; the disappearance of an old way of thinking which reassured people that, however low in the pecking order, they still had a place and a value - all of this has left some people feeling bereft. And it's not something that politics can easily fix. - David Goodhart, Prospect's editor


As in "we're hardwired to do x, think y." This sort of evolutionary psychology babble is creeping in everywhere and is usually contentless. I even heard it in a BBC2 documentary the other week: "We're hardwired as a species to make art." Really? It's even more insidious when used as a justification for bad behaviour: men leer because they're "hardwired" to. No more please. - Naomi Alderman, novelist

HIV vaccine

In September, there was great excitement when Thai and American scientists announced they had developed a HIV vaccine which cut new infections by thirty per cent. A month later, we learned the results were based on a partial analysis. The vaccine didn't work for the people with risky behaviour who need it most. - Elizabeth Pisani, an epidemiologist

The post-bureaucratic age

Critiques of bureaucracy have been around since Weber. But governments are ill-advised to undermine the tool on whose effectiveness their success ultimately depends. Thatcherism tied itself in knots by attacking bureaucracy with the only weapon available to it: other bureaucrats. But nobody believes that David Cameron will escape this riddle - indeed, it's odds on he warms to the Sir Humphreys once their dead hands are finally under his control. - Will Davies, sociologist

Richard Long

Richard Long epitomises one of the cul-de-sacs of conceptual art. I blame one of the creeds of minimalism: that an artist should explore just one area. Long has followed one subject - the walk - over forty years. Sure he may have walked in circles, and from coast to coast, but there's only about four variations in the final work. Many critics applaud the discipline of his visual poetry, but I long for something that holds my attention for a bit, well, longer. - Ben Lewis, Prospect's art critic


Snow in February

The snow in February was sublime: a gift that halted everything. Winter was cold, as it should be, the streets transformed by beauty and playfulness with snow sculptures on every corner. The only sound was the crunch of boots as people went home to eat together as the sun went down. - Jean Seaton, professor of media history

The Euro

The most underrated event was the stabilising influence of the euro in the global economy. Eurosceptics have forecast with remorseless inaccuracy that the euro would consign Europe to stagnation, and would fall apart under the pressures of an economic shock. Its great test was the near-collapse of the western banking system; the member states of the eurozone fared much less disastrously than, say, Iceland. Right-wing columnists have had to push back the date of the apocalypse. - Oliver Kamm, Times leader writer

Duchy Original Sausages

Incomparably the best bangers on the market but strangely neglected by the GBP (great British public), as evidenced by the Prince of Wales' company getting into difficulties. But hats off to Waitrose who have rescued it so that we can still enjoy these plump treasures. - Peter Bazalgette, television producer

Pop Life, Tate Modern

Here was another exhibition - this time about the efforts of artists like Warhol, Koons, Murakami and Hirst, to penetrate the mass market - widely derided by the critics. It didn't help that someone leaked the fact that the show was originally meant to be titled 'Sold Out', and that one artist (maybe Hirst) objected. Yet, this was the best 'Worst of' show I have ever seen. In fact, it's the only 'Worst of' show I have seen staged in a public museum in Britain. It would have been an act of great curatorial bravery - if the curators had intended it that way. But when I spoke to them, they insisted they were exhibiting great art. How wrong they were! Here were most of the worst works of art made over the last twenty years - including Koons' dismal Penthouse style photo-shoot with his wife (at the time) pornstar Ciccciolina, and the worst Murakamis I have ever seen (unmissable!). The exhibition in itself was like a little morality play - showing us how bad art becomes when it attempts to embrace mass culture and the market. These artists set out to gain mass market exposure - but in the end the only value of their art lies in its media profile. The art world is so desperate to rid itself of the charge of elitism, that it will suspend judgement about any art gets a few headlines or a bit of TV coverage. That's the tragedy of the art of our times. - Ben Lewis, Prospect's art critic

Rob Hopkins

While green fatigue dominated the climate change debate, Rob Hopkins's Transition Towns movement has made sterling progress. Convinced that self-sufficiency is the answer, in 2005 he devised a blueprint for communities working together towards a sustainable future. There are now a hundred and fifty-two Transition Towns in Britain. - Anna Shepard, writer on green lifestyles

Spiral and Spiral II

The BBC4-broadcast French thrillers begin with the body of a young woman found dumped in a skip. Gorgeous prosecutor Pierre Clément investigates while trying to sort out his attraction to Capitaine Laure Berthaud, not to mention the wife he's separated from. Spiral II was even more tangled, featuring international trafficking and arms dealing. The show seamlessly interweaves a season-long case with CSI-style single-episode mysteries. - Naomi Alderman, novelist

Catherine Story - Carl Freedman Gallery, London

If ever I saw a debut show which contained the seeds of future greatness - and not too distant greatness at that - it was this completely overlooked exhibition of paintings and maquettes by Catherine Story. Story paints the innocuous objects of our domestic environments, but they take on a darkly oneiric life. An old '30s corner-cupboard now looks like it has a sinister embrace. The dark black cubbyhole at its centre has become a kind of facial abyss. A large ball of whitish cotton wool - or is it clay? - now seems to throb with fleshiness. Story's painting displays as much acumen as austerity - the palette of greys, whites and browns echoes that of Picasso and Braque's analytical Cubism (and her work has that much discipline for this to be an appropriate echo). Her painting style is disarmingly plain, but sharply consistent, with a purposed modesty, and its complemented by the brown paper she often paints on, as well as by the absence of picture frames. This is utterly brilliant minimal surrealism (if you want a 'ism' for it). - Ben Lewis, Prospect's art critic

Reforms to the English NHS

Patient and public satisfaction are at their highest levels in over twenty-five years. Waiting for elective surgery has almost been eliminated. For some operations the poor now wait less long for operations than the better off: the reverse was true in 1997. NHS productivity is up, and patient post-operative mortality down. Resources are only part of the story. Scotland and Wales - which have rejected the English reforms involving targets, patient choice and provider competition - are doing relatively badly in many of these respects, even though they have more resources per head. - Julian Le Grand, professor of social policy


Playdar is software that cuts through the mess of competing online music services and turns the internet into a giant jukebox. The catch? Listeners benefit when people add their collections to Playdar, but music companies do not. Expect legal problems. - Jim Giles, science writer


Leaving aside its silly, woolly liberal bishops and its obsession with homosexuality, the lovely poetic, rational church of the 1662 Prayer Book and King James Bible has come rather well out of its undesired tangle with the Pope. If the Vatican really believed that stuff about Anglican orders being invalid, and didn't secretly envy the C of E's original vernacular liturgy and intellectual tradition, how could it possibly have made the concessions it did? Anglicans, who know that despite the decay their church's foundations remain strong, have said a polite "no" to the Pope.

"Boule To Braid" curated by Richard Wentworth, Lisson Gallery, London

This was a visually witty romp through minimalism and conceptualism curated by one of Britain's cleverer artists. The exhibition neatly played off Modernism formalist Utopians like Donald Judd and Robert Mangold against its conceptual mockers, like Hans Haacke and Ryan Gander, and the whole carnival ended with a hilarious video in which a couple complained about their crumbling and leaking modernist villa. - Ben Lewis, Prospect's art critic

Elinor Ostrom

In October she became the first woman to win the Nobel prize for economics. A political scientist at Indiana University, her research found that communities often run common resources (such as dams or irrigation systems) better on their own than when outside authorities impose rules. She was praised for taking analysis of non-market institutions "from the fringe of economic analysis into the very centre." So why haven't we taken notice? - Brian Eno, music producer

Herschel and Planck

Time named Herschel Space Observatory as the seventh best invention of 2009, so why claim it's underrated? Because any NASA mission gets more publicity in the British media than a European one. It's a sign of the Brits' chronic inability to think that anything they do can ever measure up to the Americans. So let's hear it for Herschel and its sister mission Planck. - Stephen Eales, professor of astronomy

Beth Tweddle

Winning a World Gymnastics gold at the ripe old age of twenty-four, despite recent injury, was so extraordinary for a Briton that no one could quite come to terms with it. In an era in which any sporting success produces showers of MBEs and OBEs, there was neither a call (nor a written note) from the PM. - Tim Harris, sports writer

Helmut Kohl

Where was he, the giant of Oggersheim, in all the celebrations of the twentieth anniversary of 1989? Old, sick, wheelchair-bound after a stroke, compromised by a party funding scandal, ruthlessly pushed aside by Angela Merkel: he did not get his dues. For Helmut Kohl it was who seized the chance to unify Germany. Of all the great actors of 1989, he was the one who set himself the largest strategic goal, and achieved what he intended. - Timothy Garton Ash, professor of European Studies at Oxford


It's the whipping boy of left-liberal whingers everywhere. What rubbish. It sells a good product with more than a hat tip to the ethical. The average coffee in this country before Starbucks was a national disgrace. Now it's just average. - Siôn Simon, Labour MP


Equal pay. Maternity rights. Less sexism at work. Better rape conviction rates. Improvement in international maternal mortality rates. Believing victims of domestic violence. Banning of page three. Feminism is needed more than ever. - Lorraine Candy, editor-in-chief of Elle magazine

The economy of regard

Avner Offer's idea of "the economy of regard" - what Bill Clinton might have called "the relationships, stupid." How we treat each other as partners, friends, neighbours, colleagues and strangers dominates our life satisfaction. Ironically, this soft stuff also underpins most regular economic activity too. Buying stuff to give away at Christmas makes no sense without the relationships and quirky humanity that lie behind it. - David Halpern, author of The Hidden Wealth of Nations

The Pope on globalisation

Rome's statement on the financial crisis is the most important encyclical on economics since Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum in 1890, which charted a middle way between capitalism and communism. Now Benedict XVI has done the same for the twenty-first century, demanding a world that taps the social potential of markets and the state by privileging society over the failings of both. In so doing he drew on the best Catholic economists to produce a philosophy whose influence reaches beyond denominational boundaries. - Phillip Blond, director of ResPublica

Jude Law's Hamlet

Jude Law's brilliant, powerful, intelligent, subtle Hamlet - in a Donmar Warehouse production now transferred to Broadway - was a triumph. A few of the smarter reviewers recognised it. But most thought it cleverer to comment on the fortune he is making in Hollywood. Did Laurence Olivier receive this sort of envy? - Victor Sebestyen, journalist and writer

Web cats

Cats are big on the internet: photos, videos, whole subcultures detailing their comically misspelled antics. A sign that mankind is slowly melting into idiocy? Perhaps. But google "kitler" (short for "cats that look like Hitler") for a mix of delight, ideological amazement and category confusion. - Tom Chatfield, Prospect's books editor


The Iraq inquiry: Won't amount to diddley squat unless witnesses testify under oath.
The Ashes victory: A weak Aussie team blinked under pressure, and England were bailed out by South African imports.
Sarah Palin's autobiography. Need I say more?

Boris Johnson: He's done better than most expected.
Barclays Great Escape: Varley, Agius and Diamond bet on Arab money and independence rather than take the government shilling and risk nationalisation. They made it.
Tony Blair Associates: Blair is building up the British equivalent of Kissinger Associates, an opaque and lucrative global network which blurs the line between politics and commerce.


Barack Obama is the most overrated figure in world politics. The election of someone like him seemed so wonderful that most of us wanted him to be a second FDR and assumed he was an effective radical reformer. A comparison of his own wasted first hundred days with FDR's shows why he has failed to be. Probably the most underrated politician is the modest, unrhetorical prime minister of India since 2004, Manmohan Singh. Not the least of his achievements is to make India a country that has been surprisingly good at keeping out of western headlines.

The most overrated idea at present is the belief that multi-party elections, however desirable in principle, are the key to political progress. In most of the world they open up lasting, probably irreconcilable, ethnic, religious and other rifts. Moreover, elections risk undermining the judiciary, the true guarantors of rights. The most underrated danger lies in the consequences of another half-century of unlimited and very possibly accelerating economic growth and technological revolution. True, we all know about the potential havoc of climate change, but the prospects of effective global action by the world's decision-makers are negligible, unless banks are at stake.

The most overrated cultural practice is giving Nobel prizes for literature, economics and peace, because they assume that there are agreed criteria for global peer consensus about lasting merit. But there is no agreement. Hence the chanciness of the literature selections and the politico-ideological swings of the economics. The most underrated danger to culture is the tendency to establish historical truth, not by evidence and argument, but by law. The penalisation of genocide denial, or (as in Turkey) of genocide assertion, is one example. The European parliament's insistence on the official equation of the crimes of Nazism and communism, the French government's attempt to make one interpretation of colonialism official, are others.


Overrated: Gordon Brown
It should have been his year: a genuine shot at political resurrection. The leader with the most in-depth understanding of global capitalism might have set the international agenda. Instead he's prowling the corridors of Downing Street, a tired man, in dark mood, in a tired administration. And the past twelve months have confirmed that he's tragically unsuited to play the starring role on the political stage - a man incapable of creating compelling narratives in foreign or domestic policy, and a politician out of touch in a job that, these days, demands touchy-feely flair.

Underrated: The Prime Minister
Rumours of putsch proved greatly exaggerated. He confounded the predictions and survived. More, he's effectively neutered all credible internal opponents. By backing Tony Blair for the top job in Europe he pulled off the brilliant coup of ensuring the defeat of his nemesis while looking generous-spirited. He won the nation's sympathy - even if he won't win their votes - after The Sun's crude manipulation of a distraught soldiers' mother. Indeed, the merciless battering from the angry brigade had the perverse effect of highlighting his essential commitment to public service and his core decency.