I Am Island: Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun

February 7, 2016

theoutrunA difficulty with the rehab memoir is the decline in interesting material after the protagonist finally sobers up. The invaluable Popbitch website demonstrated this in its review of Steve Coogan’s autobiography. Coogan was something of a tabloid wildman until he settled down and discovered the quiet joys of arthouse film and statutory press regulation. The Popbitch piece quotes dull anecdotes about Philomena and Judi Dench. The website’s reviewer is all but shouting: ‘Forget all this stuff about gym car parks and the Oscars! Tell me about Courtney Love and coke!’

When Orcadian writer Amy Liptrot gave up drink and drugs forever, her worst fear was that abstinence would take her essential self: ‘my cool, by which I mean my enlivening sense of discontent, and my youth, and sex – narrowed eyes and full lips – and enjoyment of testing the boundaries, of saying something uncomfortable and an excitement in the unexpected.’ She was aware of the personality dangers associated with quitting. Some twelve-step graduates become new-age temperance fundamentalists, wagging their fingers at any succeeding generation that seeks the bright lights and pleasures of the evening: others go on endlessly about their old session life, as if trying to reclaim a contact high. ‘I don’t want to become someone sanctimonious,’ Liptrot writes, ‘who tuts at teenagers drinking alcopops; neither do I want to talk in therapy platitudes nor acquire the evangelical tone of voice I know from church preachers.’

But Liptrot had somewhere interesting to come back to, and this is where I have to declare an interest of a kind. Orkney is a love-hate place. Many mainlanders move to the islands to find a fresh, more natural way of life, only to leave after they discover that the Orkney life is rather more fresh and natural than they had supposed. The artist Max Scratchmann spent six years on the archipelago and described Orcadians as ‘veritable Jekyll and Hydes when the midnight sun sinks and rum and whisky washes away their numerous inhibitions’, adding that ‘The two major pastimes on long winter nights are gossip and adultery’ (presumably there are also some negative sides). Myself, I have family friends on the island and enjoyed my few visits there: people were friendly, there were decent pubs, beautiful stone circles and you could see the sea from wherever you were. Reading The Outrun, I could feel undiluted wind and hear the local accent sing in my ears: a combination of mainland Scottish and Wirral Scouse, if memory serves.

But I don’t know if I’d love the place so much if I’d been raised there, and knew the place like Liptrot did. She grew up yearning to get off ‘the Rock’ and escaped to London as soon as she could: after numerous lost jobs, failed relationships, nasty encounters and dissolved houseshares, she returned to the island to get her head clean and the book details her struggle to reconcile herself with place and roots.

This is where The Outrun diverts from the traditional rehab memoir. There’s a sense that the last drink is where the story really begins. Like many such books it’s very I-centred, the observations derive from her own individual experience – but always in an arresting and seamless way. This is what I mean:

It wasn’t the out-of-the-way location, the tatty seats or the blank bureaucratic dealings that made me sob when I was in the waiting room at the addiction clinic: it was the smell. It was the same sour odour that had filled my London bedrooms, the smell from an ill sheep you are going to have to spray with a red X and send to the mart.

I remembered that acetone smell from when I was a child and sheep lay dying. One morning Dad went into a field and found more than twenty ewes on their sides or backs, blown up like balloons, others stumbling around as if they were drunk. They had been put into a new field the night before and gorged on chickweed in the grass.

In a more subtle way, Liptrot writes that ‘For those of us susceptible to addiction alcohol quickly becomes the default way of alleviating anxiety and dealing with stressful situations. Through repeated use of the drug, our neural pathways are scored so deeply they can never be repaired.’ Later, when she is building a drystone dyke, Liptrot marks ‘the sun’s short journey across the southern sky, over the Bay of Skaill and the hills of Hoy before it falls below the Atlantic horizon and I can no longer see my stones. I start to think in decades and centuries rather than days and months.’ She is beginning to build new neural pathways and doesn’t need to explicitly say so.

Liptrot gets a job with the RSPB tracking corncrakes by GPS and later moves to one of the northern islands, the ones populated by just handfuls of people, or else only monks and sheep. She rents a cottage from the RSPB – inevitably known locally as ‘the birdy hoose’ – on a rock of just 371 souls. Come reflections on the urban versus the remote – some predictable (you can’t leave your door unlocked, but you can in Papa Westray) and some not so predictable. Cities have their problems but small communities too nourish sprouting evils. How long can you live by yourself and still stay sane? What number constitutes the perfect and harmonious community of peoples? 500? Seventy? Two? One?

The Outrun has moments of luminous, almost surreal beauty and an understated sensuality in the prose that recalls Alan Warner at his best and brightest. Liptrot captures something of what it must be like to live in a remote place where the sky is on fire and you become acutely aware that people are little more than transitory witnesses to life and time. It’s proof that the unintoxicated life also bears examining and of a happiness that doesn’t write white.

Wolves of London: Finding The Actual One

January 31, 2016

isysuttiePossibly the best TV comedy of the new century, Peep Show, ended last month. It was a bittersweet experience as a TV fan as I had followed the show from its first episode in 2003 – had grown up with Mark and Jez. In the last series you tend to lose sympathy for the El Dude brothers – as Robert Webb said: ‘It was a show about two young men sharing a flat and it’s become two middle-aged men sharing a flat, which is a different level of sadness. I think it was getting too sad.’ The madcap romantic-stalking schemes and defiant slackerism has a different edge. Always a reactionary outsider, Mark at this point comes off as a toxic individual who messes with people’s lives for personal gain. But at the end of the series his plans come to nothing and he sits in the ruins of another party with Jez on a nearby sofa going ‘I’m so tired’. Turning on the TV, Mark sees a feature about the reintroduction of wolves to Britain – yet another sign that the world is going to hell. ‘What next? Bring back smallpox? We all had fun with the smallpox, didn’t we? Is it time smallpox had a reboot?’ The show ends with an ominous wolf howl.

All this sounds like a roundabout way of talking about Isy Suttie‘s book. Sure, the comedian was in Peep Show and in the book she even repeats one of the show’s classic lines – ‘men with ven’ (plural for ‘man with van’). But it has a similar theme – the difficulty in staying young forever. You stop thinking in academic years and start thinking in financial years. Party shots fall off your newsfeed, and are replaced with endless pictures of misshapen-looking babies. Couples move out of the shared house and buy homes in charmless suburbs that their children will spend an adolescence trying to escape. When Isy Suttie’s best friends decide to get a mortgage and a family, she makes a bet that she will find a life partner – the Actual One – within a month.

That’s the premise, at least – the narrative itself is mainly a bunch of anecdotes loosely strung together, reminding me of Richard Herring’s Warming Up blogs, an exercise where you just start writing to get the creative brain in gear, drill down into any observational material and pummel concepts to death. It’s not a bad way to write, and Suttie makes it work – waiting at a GUM clinic, she sees some rowdy lads in their twenties: ‘It was like a youth club where one of them might have to inconveniently pop off and have his dick looked at in a moment, but soon he’d be back to merrily pelt Minstrels at a leaflet stand.’

In the book, she has just got out of a relationship with a man so insensitive he forgets, within days, about the giant papier-mâché penguin Suttie builds for him. She adds ruefully: ‘As it turns out, if you decide to make a papier-mâché penguin for your partner to try and save your relationship, the raw materials will cost approximately £180, and the reaction will be vague.’ Later she goes out with a man she meets at a party in Dalston who lives on a boat and speaks entirely in rhyme: ‘My name’s Joe, I live on a barge, you guys look like you like it large!’ There’s not a lot of dating and romance in here though – Suttie breaks off mid way through these encounters to tell a long anecdote from her childhood or student days.

More interesting are her memories of struggling to make it as a comedian and musician straight out of drama school. Doing the Edinburgh Festival on no money and no profile, travelling hundreds of miles for a few moments’ exposure, getting wrecked until 5am with squaddies in a Portsmouth drinking basement – these are fantastic passages and the book could have done with more material about making it in a classically male dominated world. The Actual One is funny, wise, discursive, even twee in places, but the howl of the wolf echoes through it none the less.


The Human Junkyard: Making A Murderer

January 17, 2016

Making_A_Murderer_TitleHaving watched all ten episodes of Making a Murderer, I think that Steven Avery is probably guilty. That’s probably not what the filmmakers, Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos, wanted me to think, and indeed the series was criticised for a perceived bias towards Avery’s defence. In a debate on the Liz Loves Books blog, which I recommend to anyone wanting to drill down into the rights and wrongs of the Avery case, ex prosecutor Neil White identifies ‘an imbalance in how the evidence was presented, slanted entirely towards the defence case, relying mainly on the insights of the Avery family and of Steven Avery’s lawyers.’ In an email to The Wrap, special prosecutor Kenneth R Kratz echoed this, and said Netflix should ‘either provide an opportunity for rebuttal, or alert the viewers that this series was produced by and FOR the defense of Steven Avery, and contains only the opinion and theory of the defense team.’

Kratz and Avery strike a chord. Avery pretty much owns Making a Murderer. The victim in the case, Teresa Halbach, is just a cipher, a face on the screen. We don’t see the prosecution team or the police apart from when they speak in court (and Kratz in particular comes off as a pompous bore with a silly high voice). However I don’t believe documentary makers have a duty to be completely impartial. A commitment towards some meaningless idea of ‘balance’ can strangle as many truths as it reveals, as many frustrated TV reporters can attest. I personally think Ricciardi and Demos could have widened the scope of the series, following police, prosecution and defence teams as the case unfolded, and leaving it up to the audience to judge Steven Avery guilty of murder or not. But in this case, the trial is done, the verdict reached, the filmmakers have no obligation to present a ‘balanced view’ and there may be practical reasons why they couldn’t do so.

Just as unfair is the condescension of the British viewer. In all the discussions I’ve heard about the show, the big theme has been ‘This is what happens when you’re poor and white with a low IQ in America’. Well, it’s not easy in this country either. There is almost no injustice in the US criminal system that isn’t replicated over here. Wrongful convictions? Ask the Guildford Four, Birmingham Six, Stefan Kiszko, Tony Stock and countless others railroaded by UK police and courts. On the dodgy confession that convicted Brendan Dassey, Neil White says that ‘Thankfully, the rights of young people are much better protected here and the police would not have conducted themselves in that way in the UK.’ But the recent G4S scandal doesn’t inspire confidence in our criminal justice system’s treatment of children. The obvious exception is the death penalty, but even here, numerous US states have abolished capital punishment in recent years, with executions at a 24-year low. The US never did mass execution on the scale of China and Iran and it seems that America could lose the death penalty altogether within our lifetime. Meanwhile I suspect that if the UK held a referendum on capital punishment today it would pass tomorrow and the gallows would be up and running by the weekend. Can’t happen here? Don’t be so sure.

Making a Murderer may be biased, but it’s not condescending. Steven Avery is depicted as humane and courageous but no martyr. The Avery family’s dignity and resilience, as they lose their son to prison, is heartbreaking and inspiring. The style is forensic, but with a warmth and humanity that stays with you, particularly in its treatment of the truly tragic Brendan Dassey story. I personally have no idea how I would have voted had I been on the Wisconsin jury. As I’ve said, I think Avery is probably guilty, but ‘probably’ is not good enough reason to take away a man’s liberty.

Having said this, it strikes me that, to believe in Steven Avery’s innocence, you also have to believe in one of the following propositions:

1) To avoid a $36m lawsuit, the Manitowoc County PD located and moved Teresa Halbach’s remains to the Avery salvage yard during the 8-day search of the Avery compound. The FBI agreed to perjure itself on behalf of the notorious and compromised small town department. This despite the fact that in all probability the ‘real killer’ would almost certainly turn up somewhere in the prison system bragging about the Halbach murder, and the murder conviction would fall apart as had the Avery rape conviction, leading to more financial penalty and reputational damage for the Manitowoc County PD.

2) The ‘real killer’ either killed Teresa Halbach on the Avery salvage yard or moved her remains to the yard without the knowledge of Avery or any of his relatives, girlfriend or visitors to the yard, and without leaving any forensic traces whatsoever.

I could be wrong – I don’t have a law, law enforcement or forensics background – but it seems to me that, as talented as Avery’s advocates were, they had a choice between police conspiracy or one armed bandit as defence arguments. Both of these are very difficult to get past a jury and because of this they lost the case and Avery was convicted. The 1985 rape conviction was a tragedy and an injustice but it doesn’t axiomatically make Avery innocent of the Halbach murder. Real life isn’t The Shawshank Redemption. It’s more like Oz. Complexity beats innocence, every time.

I don’t think Making a Murderer will spring Avery, if that was the intention of the filmmakers. Its success is in its depiction of the impact of crime – not just on the victim but on the perpetrator, the perpetrator’s family, the cops, the lawyers, the jury and everyone else sucked into the case. All this with excellent wide-sweep cinematography of the Wisconsin landscape – radio towers, endless winding roads, cows in paddocks, and the Avery salvage yard: rows and rows of cars, in various stages of repair, open chassis, crushers and combines and skeletons of machinery, half-buried under snow or glinting in the afternoon sun. It strikes me as a good metaphor for what criminal justice so often is for the innocent and the guilty alike – a human junkyard, full of the innards and remains of problematic mortal existence.

Walk On The Dark Side

January 13, 2016

spy-out-the-landThere’s been recent literary interest in the famous MI6 traitors of the twentieth century – Ben MacIntyre’s classic book on Kim Philby, and more recently Andrew Lownie’s thoughtful, more sympathetic bio of Guy Burgess. The lives of the Cambridge spies follow a familiar arc – Eton, university, WW2, Secret Service, promotion, ardour, travel, booze – then exposure, a last-moment fade to the Soviet Union, and a final act of lonely, alcohol-assisted decline. (All the spies who ended their days in Moscow – Philby, Burgess, Maclean – seem to have missed England terribly. Lownie’s chapters on Burgess’s last days in Russia make you actually feel sorry for the guy).

Jeremy Duns‘s trilogy of spy books broke the curve. His double agent Paul Dark was converted to the Soviet cause by a moment of love and betrayal at the end of the second world war. By the time we meet him, in 1969, Dark has long lost all illusions in the glory of communism, but still plays his parallel masters off each other. He’s a man in blood, and won’t turn back, because exposure could mean a 42-year sentence, George Blake style. Immediately into Free Agent, a Soviet defector wanders into the Nigerian station, and Dark jumps on the next flight to neutralise the potential tattletale, and pronto. The story doesn’t stop until the end of the third book, The Moscow Option, when Dark is deported to Russia and scrambling to prevent a nuclear holocaust. The narration is crisp and first person. Difficulty and attrition is around every corner. Everything that can go wrong does, and Duns does not let you go for a second.

Spy Out the Land is kind of a departure, giving Dark a few years’ break living as a fugitive in Stockholm, where he’s settled down with a wife and child. Duns switches to third person for this, introducing a range of supporting characters and global events centring around a summit in then Rhodesia. Soviet agents, white supremacists and MI6 agents converge on Dark’s own drama hunting down his kidnapped family. This change of pace and scope doesn’t always work and there’s even elements of creaking and clunking as the international vectors of the plot kick into gear.

Still, the results are compelling. This is the moment when Rachel Gold, a young analyst on Dark’s trail, reflects on her intuition into intelligence work. It’s come from a random glance at a family album, when Gold failed to recognise her aunt:

But that fraction of a moment when she had seemed a stranger had troubled her. She had always been very close to Auntie Hannah and previously would have sworn she’d have recognised her anywhere, at once. The moment had taught her that even if you thought you knew something or someone completely, early impressions could shape your perception of them and as a result you could miss things – data – that had been sitting there in front of you all along.

There’s a phrase, the ecstasy of perfect recognition, which is supposed to say it all about our relationship with art. But there is a dark art – pulp, horror, fantasy, cops and robbers, spies – which is all about unrecognition, which lives in the moment where you notice some crucial detail, something off-kilter and misaligned and deeply disturbing… and sometimes we don’t notice this until it’s too late and the lock has clicked in the door and there are ominous shadows pooling up and around you. It seems to me that moments like this are at the heart of the espionage novel, and no one does them better than Jeremy Duns in that para.

Moving Cities: The Strange World of Darran Anderson

December 26, 2015

imaginarycitiesI read Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities only a few months before coming to Darran Anderson’s Imaginary Cities, which Anderson describes in a footnote as a ‘diminished non-fiction mirror’ to Calvino’s classic work. I think Anderson’s a little over-modest here: although he doesn’t have Calvino’s great economy (Imaginary Cities clocks in at 570 pages to Calvino’s 148) what he’s done is something of profound originality all the same. We’re used to new books about architecture and the urban space. Writers like Owen Hatherley and Anna Minton looked at what successive rulers did to the modern city. But it’s when that caustic perception is allied with a staggering historical memory and the imagination of an Iain M Banks or a Kim Stanley Robinson that one becomes hopelessly lost.

Anderson is an ex contributing editor to 3:AM magazine. I say this not just by way of disclaimer (having written there myself) but because it part explains Anderson’s extraordinary range of reference. He’s inspired by SF, utopian fiction, dystopian fiction, detective fiction, comic books, video games, French romance, brutalism, magical realism, the flâneur, the golem, Dante, Swift, Rushdie, Tintin and de Sade. He travels widely in time and space. Lost cities. Sky cities. Underground cities. Moving cities. Cities that come out of tubes. Cities that change according to one’s mood. Imaginary Cities is 3:AM in book form.

Calvino’s Invisible Cities is a marvellous panorama but also a narrative in itself. It has a beginning, a middle and an end, that resonates as strongly as anything in more conventional classical storytelling. Anderson’s book isn’t quite a story but there are some interesting themes. ‘All buildings contain their own ruins,’ Anderson says. This is most obvious in the Nazi death cult: ‘Hitler urged Speer to encapsulate ruin-value in his monuments. His were cities designed to die and leave grandiose millennial corpses; his passion for prosperity being proportional towards the present.’ And yet ruination doesn’t necessarily make an ending:

Ruins have a remarkable capacity for reinvention. In its (after-) life the Parthenon has been a church, a mosque, a battered hideout against Venetians (who blew its 300 defenders to pieces), the palace of a Duke (complete with a now-lost Frankish tower), a place of execution and target practice for Turks. It has been dedicated, and rededicated to, and ransacked by, waves of empires and gods that no longer exist in any meaningful sense.

Another point Anderson hammers home is that every dystopia is a utopia for someone. For every millions who perish in the concentration camp an elite grows fat on gold teeth. And you can’t divorce great monuments from the circumstances of their creation – what would the pyramids look like, or the skyscrapers of Dubai if you were one of the nameless slaves that died building them? Yet Anderson’s is an optimistic vision. What lives, changes, and that’s true of cities and buildings as well as living organisms. Imaginary Cities offers the progressive’s one true hope: things don’t always have to be like this, in fact things are destined not always to be like this. ‘This is, of course, as we see from perpetual struggles, a threat to those who benefit from orthodoxies, control and stasis.’

It strikes me that at least in the UK we live in a time where the city has barely got started. It has only been a couple of hundred years since we put down the plow and walked to the nearest conurbation. Contra the nimby doomsayers, most of our land is barely developed, while in overcrowded London the super rich extend their mansions into the underground. Who knows what the city will look like in another 200 years, and how it will adapt to a changing world? As I write floods pile into the Calder Valley. Anderson has a new take on climate change: he imagines how the urban will respond if the worst comes to pass. ‘It’s worth considering whether the sunken cities might become modernised. Will the sound of bells be joined by phones ringing, car alarms, the glow of neon in the depths?’ In a recent interview with the Irish Times, Anderson said that ‘For the past twenty years, every time I go to a new city, I keep a notebook of thoughts and the things I see and experience there, very often on night-walks’. There’s something good and comforting about the thought of Anderson wandering and thinking through the night.

The Lives of Phantoms: Mad Men

December 25, 2015

‘It is easy to be beautiful; it is difficult to appear so,’ writes Frank O’Hara in his seminal poem ‘Meditations in an Emergency’. But for adman Don Draper appearing beautiful is the easy part. He’s characterised by discreet wealth, immaculate suits, a rich basso voice and perfect hair. Although through the ten years of Mad Men time frame, Don becomes a lot more vulnerable and compromised, physically he barely seems to age or change – he’s like a Comte de Saint Germain for the K-Mart era. Also like the legendary Count, he’s a great wanderer. While his firm negotiate a life-altering buyout, he takes off on an impromptu tour of the west coast, the itinerary including a bizarre sybaritic revel with some European aristocrats.

TV critics tied themselves in knots trying to explain who Don is and what motivates him. Like the narrator of ‘Meditations’, Don is indiscriminate but fleeting, entirely specific and disloyal. He’s not a legacy builder like Frank Underwood or Walter White – Don knows that all empires fall. He knows impermanence, and it’s the only thing he really commits to. ‘I’m living like there’s no tomorrow, because there isn’t one,’ he says. When a beatnik acquaintance slags his corporate lifestyle, Don replies that ‘I hate to break it to you, but there is no big lie. There is no system. The universe is indifferent.’ He claims to have never written anything over 250 words – you hope he lived long enough for Twitter. He has to be strong armed into signing even an extended employment contract, so acute is his determination not to be pinned down. He lives only by the ‘hobo code’ – siguls scratched by wandering men on barns and gateposts to advise and communicate: beware of the dog, this farmer will give you work, a dishonest man lives here. When Don Callahan failed to kill the vampire in Salem’s Lot, Stephen King sent him roaming down strange roads – the ‘highways in hiding’, in King’s lovely phrase – into dozens of alternate Americas, different in subtle fractures and gradations. Don Draper would have loved Callahan, and called him father.

Pascal said that all human evil comes from an inability to sit still in a room. ‘I am always looking away,’ Frank O’Hara writes, ‘Or again at something after it has given me up. It makes me restless and that makes me unhappy, but I cannot keep them still.’ If Don Draper is evil – ‘a pretty dismal, despicable guy’ as actor Jon Hamm put it – he’s that kind of evil, the evil that comes from a reluctance to take responsibility for anything. (‘You only like the beginnings of things,’ a furious ex declares.) After accidentally killing his CO during the Korean war, Draper steals both the officer’s identity and his Purple Heart. A dustbowl farm boy who spent his childhood in a bordello, Don confiscates the life of a respectable American male.

And he assumes that what works for him works for everyone. Tracked down by his true half-brother Adam, Don simply pays the kid to go away: the brother is broken by the rejection and hangs himself. When his colleague Lane Pryce is caught out in a cheque fraud, Don counsels him to plan an ‘elegant exit’. The exit is not so elegant: Pryce’s bloated corpse is found the next day, swaying from the office doorframe, again death by hanging. Still Don believes that the only way is to ‘get out of here and move forward.’ When his protégé Peggy has a breakdown he visits her and says: ‘This never happened. It will shock you how much it never happened.’ As my Twitter pal Jason Lee Sandford pointed out, she’s the only one to survive his advice.

Among many other things Don Draper is a family man, which means that while he’s off screwing and wandering, someone has to watch the house and kids. For most of the series that’s just what Betty Draper ends up doing, and I don’t recall a female lead so frustrating and pitiful to watch. Her loneliness, her isolation, her thwarted dreams and desire – the show’s writers and actor January Jones spare us nothing. In the late 1950s, the feminist writer Betty Friedan went knocking on doors in the suburbs. She was trying to get to the root of ‘the problem that has no name’ – the terror, the boredom, the inability to sit still in a room that afflicted so many smart and lively college friends in their new lives as full time homemakers. Most women Friedan knocked up were happy to talk – they were happy for the company and had nothing on their hands but time. Interviewing a random sample of upscale suburban moms, Friedan found that:

Sixteen out of the twenty-eight were in analysis or analytical psychotherapy. Eighteen were taking tranquillisers; several had tried suicide and some had been hospitalised for varying periods, for depression or vaguely diagnosed psychotic states. (‘You’d be surprised at the number of these happy suburban wives who simply go beserk one night, and run shrieking through the street without any clothes on,’ said the local doctor, not psychiatrist, who had been called in, in such emergencies.) Of the women who breastfed their babies, one had continued desperately until the child was so undernourished that her doctor had intervened by force. Twelve were engaged in extramarital affairs in fact or in fantasy.

Betty Draper’s is the life of people who don’t get to run away. Showrunner Matt Weiner doesn’t give her a break even in the final season, where she is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. In a final cruel irony, the doctor addresses her husband throughout when he gives this evil prognosis, even though Betty’s in the room at the time. (Even Walter White’s doctor gave his death sentence to his face.) Having given the impression throughout of a mother who is continually irritated and embarrassed by her children, Betty writes to her college daughter Sally to tell her that ‘I always worried about you because you marched to the beat of your own drum, but now I know that’s good. Because your life will be an adventure.’ It’s a scene that reminded me of Wee-Bey handing over guardianship of his son, in The Wire – the caged bird setting free its young – and it strikes me how much of Mad Men is about chronology, and how it impacts on our lives, as the UK’s jilted generation know.

Advertising is an association game. People associate their childhoods with homespun branded products that weren’t even around when they were young. Advertising works on an idea of happiness – ‘the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of the road that screams with reassurance that whatever you’re doing is OK.’  Or, from Don’s Kodak pitch, accompanied by wedding and family photos:

This device isn’t a spaceship, it’s a time machine. It goes backwards, forwards. It takes us to a place, where we ache to go again. It’s not called ‘The Wheel’. Its called ‘The Carousel’. It lets us travel in a way a child travels. Round and round, and then back home again. To a place where we know we are loved.

The company laureate of impermanence, who knows permanence, and how to sell it. But it’s an ideal – there’s enough reality in there to give it resonance, but as O’Hara said, it’s ‘like a hyacinth, ‘to keep the filth of life away,’ yes, there, even in the heart, where the filth is pumped in and courses and slanders and pollutes and determines.’

That, I think, it’s why there’s not much discussion of the civil rights movements in the show James Meek complains that ‘The Mad Men writers raise the ghost of racism without giving it the substance to kick us in the gut.’ There’s truth in what he says. But history is not personal stories constructed around a series of headlines. People are active in their personal dramas far more than they are witnesses to wider change. When Dr King comes on the car radio, Don turns him over not because he’s racist but because he’s not interested and wants to chat up the woman he’s giving a lift to.

Much has been made of the glamour of the show, perhaps because critics of the 2010s envy characters of a world without so much ludicrous moralising around drinking and smoking. But the glamour of Mad Men is also spectral – after all, most of these characters would be dead by now. Everyone has ghosts. The ghosts of the past. The ghosts of the roads not taken and the ghosts of lives that could have been lived. The ending to series two, set during the Cuban Missile Crisis, has a special eeriness because we came so close to making a phantom of the planet. Under the dentist’s anaesthesia, Don sees a ghost of his younger brother Adam: at the end of another drinking session he has a vision of his best female friend, Anna Draper, at the moment of her death. In this vision she picks up a suitcase and walks, smiling, into whatever comes next – perhaps into those highways in hiding.

In a 2001 forward to The Shining, Stephen King asks: ‘For aren’t memories the true ghosts of our lives?’ and truly they are like ghosts – unquiet, unreliable, indiscriminate but fleeting, entirely specific and disloyal.


A Matter of Intuition

December 8, 2015

I can’t find the full text of Michel Faber’s letter to David Cameron, but the Guardian has excerpted it at length, so I can get an idea of what he’s saying. Faber sent Cameron a copy of his new book in protest against the government’s decision to airstrike ISIS in Syria, adding that ‘a book cannot compete with a bomb in its ability to cause death and misery, but each of us must make whatever small contribution we can, and I figure that if you drop my novel from a plane, it might hit a Syrian on the head.’

In the Guardian piece Faber makes several big assertions. Despite opening a dialogue with Cameron – by writing to him – Faber assumes that ‘the likes of Cameron are not interested in what individuals have to say’, says that the UK has no ‘political class of wisdom and grace’ and also comments upon ‘the sheer indifference that our rulers have to what we might wish and what might actually be the wise and humane thing to do.’ It’s a big statement to make because politicians, although not that interested in individuals, are not such monsters as Faber appears to think – no, seriously, they’re not. The parliamentary debate on Syrian airstrikes featured plenty of doubt and angst from both sides. MPs agonised over the motion because no one likes the idea of blood on their hands. We are governed by human beings. At least we have to behave as if politicians are not always indifferent, or as if they can be shaken from an indifference. Otherwise, why vote? Why campaign for change?

Faber says that ‘the human race, and particularly the benighted political arm of the human race, has learned nothing in 10,000 years, 100,000 years, however long we’ve been waging wars’. Presumably people have learned something about war in 100,000 years – otherwise we’d still be fighting with sticks and stones – but forgive an artist the sweeping generalisations. Faber narrows it down a little: ‘What the west sadly lacks is the humility to accept that it’s actually not in our power to sort out immensely complicated problems in the world.’ All we can do ‘is to make the situation worse by destroying infrastructure, by killing and maiming the citizens of a country that we don’t understand in the least, and radicalising and angering people more than they are already’. He talks of ‘the fantasy we can do something. That there is an HQ of evil somewhere. It’s all so adolescent male, the idea that something goes wrong and you just find out who the bad guy is and take them out, you drop a bomb on them or you blow them up with a gun or something, and that’s it, sorted.’

I’m actually sympathetic to his argument here. Beware implementing what David Allen Green calls the Something Must Be Done Act. I am very uneasy about the use of airstrikes, because of the obvious risk to civilian life. Most people would feel the same. But it is surely the case that doing nothing is also an active choice – and that there’s also an arrogance, and a fantasia, to doing nothing. Faber’s characterisation of Syria as ‘a country that we don’t understand in the least’ strikes me as bizarre in an information age where we can learn more about the Middle East than ever before. You can meet Syrian refugees in any large city, you can talk to the Syrian opposition, go on their websites and find out what they think about the airstrikes and many other things. The agora is open as never before.

But this opposition barely figured in the UK debate beyond the gleeful mockery of Cameron’s 70,000 moderate fighters figure, which STWUK are trying to spin into his ’45 minutes from doom’ soundbite. No one was trying to imagine what it would be like living in an ISIS controlled area, or whether the people living there were really so different to ourselves. Hostility to inward migration and to foreign intervention has grown in the UK at the same time and for the same reason. It’s all so complicated, we’re going to get bogged down and it will cost a lot of money. Easier to turn off the news, close our borders and forget none of this bloodshed and horror is even happening in the world. That attitude got us a refugee crisis that threatened to engulf Europe. As Lenny Henry used to say on Comic Relief: Forget geography. These are your neighbours. And Faber’s belief that airstrikes will attract terrorism to the UK (‘dropping more bombs on Syria is only going to strengthen their resolve’) is intuitive but wrong: the UK exports terror these days. Our cocksure middle-class men slip over the Turkish border to cause havoc and devastation in poor countries.

Writers and artists tend to take the far left, anti war position on these things. Critiquing Faber’s words seemed almost pointless – I kept thinking to myself, he’s a distinguished novelist, he’s obviously going to have these beliefs, and his tone of precious ennui, ersatz world-weariness and macabre irony is of a piece with that. Most of the poets, writers, performance artists and radical publishing people I know think the same. I think that, again, it’s a matter of intuition, that creative people believe that they need to take these reflexive positions, as if not to do so could compromise their creative selves. Maybe I’m wrong, but it would explain why they seem so damn sure of themselves – it’s been said before that all the laser-eyed raging certainty in this debate came not from the warmongers but the men and women who said they were all about peace and humanity and virtue. This is a shame because although Faber is maybe right that literature can’t change what happens in the world, I think creative people have potentially a lot of insight and value to put into these debates.

I would like, at some point, to have that kind of conversation.

Oh, Hannibal the Cannibal!

November 22, 2015

A minor subplot in Carl Hiaasen’s novel Lucky You involves protagonist Tom Krome trying to divorce his wife. But Mary Andrea Finley Krome won’t agree to the divorce – not because she’s madly in love with Tom (she’s as sick of him as he is of her) but because no woman in her family has ever got divorced, and Mary is damned if she’ll break the chain. Tom’s hapless attorney finds it almost impossible to serve papers because Mary Andrea, an accomplished actress, travels all over the continental US starring in various stage productions under different names. One of the shows is a musical version of The Silence of the Lambs, featuring the chorus line:

Oh, Hannibal the Cannibal

How deliciously malicious you are!

Oh, Hannibal the Cannibal. How he’s woven himself into pop culture. He’s been played by at least three different actors in a range of media, parodied in countless animations and sitcoms. Writers and readers are preoccupied with serial killers: there’s probably more fictional serials that ones that have actually existed, but in his wit and insights Lecter is king of a bloated subgenre. (Only Dick Dart, villain of Peter Straub’s The Hellfire Club, comes close.) We’ll never forget what happened to the luckless census taker who tried to ‘quantify’ Dr Lecter, and when the last Home Secretary imposed a ban on books for prisoners, it was a line of Lecter’s that immediately came to me: ‘Any rational society would kill me, or give me my books.’

In The Strange World of Thomas Harris, David Sexton’s analysis of the Lecter mythos, he quotes criminologist Elliott Leyton, who argues that the Hannibal books are great fiction but bad criminology. As fictional serial killer, Lecter is erudite, urbane, empathetic, sociable, multilingual, curious and self aware. Real serial murderers, Leyton says, tend to be ‘without intellectual or physical attainments, they are often uneducated and virtually illiterate… in sum, they are dull, unimaginative, socially defective, vengeful, self-absorbed and self-pitying human beings.’ But Sexton argues that the Lecter novels were never meant to be realistic: ‘The Hannibal Lecter stories have about the same connection to social reality as, say, the stories of Bluebeard or Dracula.’ This isn’t detective fiction – it’s the gothic high style.

Readers and critics alike loved the first two Lecter novels, in which the psychiatrist – incarcerated for a string of elaborate slayings – assists the FBI in solving other crimes, before escaping at the end of Silence of the Lambs. Hannibal, featuring the adventures of a fugitive Lecter, was seen as a betrayal of the mythos – bad fiction and bad criminology. None was more harsh than Martin Amis, and it is worth getting his War Against Cliché anthology for his marvellous hatchet job alone. Amis noted that the Hannibal of Hannibal is loaded with a plethora of pretentions: ‘curator of the Capponi’, opera at the Teatro Piccolomini, playing an ‘ornate clavier’ and eighteenth-century Flemish harpsichords, related to Balthus, the Viscontis and Machiavelli, ‘Anatole figs still weeping from their severed stems’ – Harris has made him ‘that awesome presence, a European aristocrat.’

I don’t think it’s unfair to see Harris as one of those Americans who goes gushing crazy over Old Europe. Wouldn’t a Baylor alumnus from dustbowl Mississippi love to know someone like Hannibal? The Europe he depicts in Hannibal is bathed in sepulchral grandness, a dream of great cathedrals, shimmering women and cold, fine wine. (The TV show replicates this, having FBI agents pursue Lecter on Orient-Express style steam trains and through the cobblestones and frescoes of medieval Florence.) European luxury is contrasted with the mediocre squalor of the new world: when Lecter returns to America he has to smuggle himself on a coach trip and he’s appalled by his fellow passengers, their weight and smells and children and shitty processed food. ‘Elemental Ugliness,’ Harris writes, ‘is found in the faces of the crowd.’ Hannibal antagonist Mason Verger is a meatpacking heir out for revenge after Lecter had him paralysed and induced him to cut off his own face in a PCP trance. Mason is a predator, but with none of Hannibal’s style. This is where the American dream ends, Harris is saying – faceless paralysed rich boys, drinking Martinis spiked with children’s tears.

Amis perceived in the book an authorial disdain for the masses: Harris ‘severs himself from the commonality, and it is precisely this severance that has demolished his talent.’ Hannibal is a predator who predates the messy compromise of democracy – he comes from a time where what matters is power and sensation. Class has always impacted on the crime genre. (Overrated true crime writer Anne Rule, in The Stranger Besides Me, flutters and trills over the handsome Ted Bundy and struggles to believe that such a nice young Republican boy could have committed all these murders. One pities the homicide detectives she followed around.) It has also partially formed the horror genre. The vampire wears evening dress in his castle and exercises droit de signeur on the peasant villages below. Harris gives Lecter all kinds of supernatural resonance – he says as authorial comment that ‘It is an axiom of behavioural science that vampires are territorial, while cannibals range widely across the country.’ Elsewhere he’s compared to Job’s devil – going to and fro in the world, and probably having a good time.

What matters is predation and power. Even the language of religion is harnessed into power relationships: Lecter reflects that ‘his own modest predations paled beside those of God, who is in irony matchless, and in wanton malice beyond measure.’ What matters is power and sensation. As Sexton says, taste isn’t kind. The ending of Hannibal, where Clarice Starling goes from being Lecter’s pursuer to his rescuer and lover, seems improbable (Amis: ‘It’s hard to think what woman would be capable of diverting Hannibal for more than five seconds. Mata Hari? Baroness Orczy? Catherine the Great?’) but makes perfect sense in this context. Starling has worked her way up from a modest background but is still held back by a patrician FBI personified by the moronic Paul Krendler. Sexton highlights her line ‘Damn a bunch of self improvement. I want a good dinner’ as the moment she decides to give up banging her head against the wall and succumb to the life of easy wealth offered by Lecter. A triumph of evil all the more striking because Lecter appeared to have seduced his creator as well as the heroine.

The disappointment of the Lecter novels is that Harris never gave Hannibal an effective opposition. I would love to have seen someone who could challenge the doctor intellectually and stand up for the commonality and democratic secularism. It’s true that the devil has a certain style but there is a kick and a pleasure in empathy, compassion, generosity too. Contra Sexton, these days taste is often kind.


Tales of the Missing: Kirstin Innes’s Fish Net

November 15, 2015

Fishnet_270I was prepared to be disappointed by this book. When curious about people with outsider status – immigrants, sex workers, prisoners, benefit claimants – the novelist’s temptation is to make victims, victims of sex workers in particular. Not a bit of it though. It’s easy to write victims. Kirstin Innes has worked a lot harder.

Fish Net focuses on Fiona Leonard, a single parent whose sister, Rona, has dumped a baby on Fiona and then walked out of her life. For years Fiona has been searching for her missing sister. Then a drunken chat with an old acquaintance at a wedding gives her a lead: that Rona may have got involved in the sex industry. It so happens that Fiona is currently temping at a company which is negotiating the development of a drop-in centre where working girls can hang out and get advice and check out the ‘ugly mugs’ gallery of clients you want to avoid. The local authority wants to bulldoze the drop-in and build a leisure complex to attract investment. Furious prostitutes demonstrate outside the company offices. Sympathising with their situation, and still investigating her sister’s disappearance, Fiona befriends them and is drawn deeper into their world of the missing.

Again, the big strength of Innes’s novel is that she refuses to see her characters as victims – or at least not just victims. Fiona meets a Polish escort named Anya who is in the business to work off her international students. She tells Anya: ‘I don’t understand how my sister – how anyone ends up doing this.’ Anya replies:

This question, it comes from a place where for a woman to work in the sex industry, it’s shameful, wrong… What you know is horror stories of rape and powerlessness, that teach us to prize our virtue, to keep our legs closed, that nice girls don’t do things. What you think you know is stereotypes about drug addiction, about desperate girls out there on the street. About the bodies that they find, whenever some fucking lunatic goes on a killing spree. And yes, this is all there; I am not stupid as to say to you these things don’t happen, and that they are not awful, but it is not a complete picture… what people call ‘the sex industry’ is not always, not completely, a bad thing. That just because a person sells their sexual skills, it does not mean that their life is – bam! forever ruined.

But it is hard for people in the UK to get past this shameful place. People aren’t accustomed to seeing sex as a transaction. With an increasing puritanism regarding pleasure – smoking, alcohol, junk food – coupled with a backdrop of sitcom prurience, we live in a culture where sex is sacralised and magnified and blown out of all proportion. (The fanatics who killed 129 in Paris this weekend apparently did so because it was ‘the city of prostitution’.) I remember watching an episode of Borgen where the fictional Danish PM Birgitte Nyborg has to make a hard choice about the criminalisation of sex work. She listens to women who have been abused as well as sex workers who are concerned that criminalisation would put their lives in danger. The episode struck me because you couldn’t imagine such a mature debate on this subject in Britain, fictionalised or not.

Fish Net has a raucous scene where Fiona attends a meeting at the drop in. A well-meaning representative from the council explains that in consolation for the closure of their local base, the local authority will help sex workers to leave the trade. ‘We believe that no woman should have to suffer the degradation of prostitution for a moment longer,’ the council officer declares. Rather than welcoming this, the sex workers are enraged. They feel patronised and see the council as putting their livelihoods and safety on the line. Even the brilliant and capable Anya is almost ruined forever by a tabloid sting related to the development (with a op eed titled ‘City’s vice girl shame: is immigration to blame?’)

Innes explores not just the degradation of prostitution but the degradation of modern life. Her respectable world is characterised by boring jobs, crap sports bars with glass walls, tedious get-togethers, unfulfilled wives and parents, screaming children and lairy guys on the make. Fiona becomes more impulsive and unpredictable, and enjoys winding up those she sees as increasingly part of a dull surface world. Yet Innes does not look down on her hapless straightlifers. She understands that some people do need to be rescued – hell, sometimes all of us need to be rescued. And she will make you re examine your beliefs.

The Strange Death of English Satire

November 8, 2015

number11Even the best British satirists, as they get older, lapse into a style I call the Private Eye cartoon phase. Martin Amis reached it with Lionel Asbo. Sue Townsend got there in Queen Camilla. Banksy built it in ‘Dismaland’. Ben Elton has been in the Private Eye cartoon phase for at least twenty years. The phase is a kind of noisy decline. Characters become stereotypes. Dialogue lapses into authorial comment. Carefully drawn landscapes sink into messy broad-strokes in primary colours. The narrative is a slapdash frenzy. The setups feel contrived. The jokes are clunky and obvious. So is the message. The Private Eye cartoon phase is an evil trap… and even the best novelists fall into it.

Jonathan Coe’s What a Carve Up was one of the finest novels about the 1980s. In it Coe created his grasping ruling family, the Winshaws, who have a hand in all of the decade’s disasters. Mark Winshaw is an arms dealer who prolongs the Iran-Iraq war; Dorothy an agribusiness tycoon driving farmers to the wall; Hilary a TV exec trying to dismantle the BBC. Into their story stumbles Michael Owen, a reclusive novelist, roadblocked in art and love, who is persuaded by a renegade family member to write a critical biography of the Winshaws that will expose their numerous crimes.

Coe beat all chroniclers of Thatcherism with his deft portrayal of entitlement and cruelty, and his quiet, fierce advocacy for an alternative world that values every human being. What a Carve Up was not just political satire. It evoked love, sexuality, dreams and hidden worlds. ‘There comes a point,’ says Mortimer Winshaw, ‘where greed and madness become practically indistinguishable.’ The Winshaws live at the terminus where materialism becomes dreams. (Their family home is in Yorkshire, the Raven King’s dream county.) Michael adds that: ‘If you sleep, if you dream, you must accept your dreams. It’s the role of the dreamer.’

There is a danger in revisiting old characters twenty years on. It’s mitigated in this instance because the main Winshaw villains were wiped out, in a series of marvellous set-pieces, at the end of What a Carve Up (although perhaps there is some hope for the fate of Michael Owen?) Apart from a few bastards and by-blows, the family lives on through its legacy: privatisation, warfare, the property boom, shock art and a poisonous media culture. Number 11 examines this legacy in a series of novella-like stories, loosely connected – and it’s here that Coe’s satire falls down.

The first problem is structural. What a Carve Up is how Henry James described Middlemarch, a ‘treasure-house of detail’. The book was huge, it had an enormous cast and esoteric subjects, but Coe made it all hang together. Number 11 just feels like a novella collection, with recurring characters and themes lashed through it at the last minute. In Coe’s reach to get everything in that he wants to write about – food banks, benefit fraud, colonialism, high finance, higher education, the music industry – it feels like we’re dashing after him from place to place without the space and time to take anything in. There is connection, but no coherence.

Part of Coe’s brilliance lay in his memorable and distinctive characterising. Who can forget growing up with Benjamin Trotter in The Rotter’s Club, then witnessing the lonely mess of his adult life in The Closed Circle? Who was not moved by the awful fate of Robin, painstaking reconstructed, in A Touch of Love? Coe was always particularly good on the weakness and frailties of men as they navigated the fraught and magical terrain of love and sex. He was like Larkin, without the bitterness.

Not any more. The standard Coe love story comes in the section ‘The Winshaw Prize’ where a policeman is investigating murders connected to the Winshaws. He is also in love with a woman called Lucinda, a beautiful primary school teacher who works at the local foodbank. The unrequited romance is pure Coe in all respects but one: we never actually get to know what Lucinda is thinking, she is just a figure of unattainable virtue and desire. Read – if you can stomach it – these few sentences that illustrate what a cliché his writing on the heart has become:

She wore her hair pulled back and tightly tied behind her head, thereby encouraging Nathan to picture, during his fevered nocturnal fantasies, the moments when she would untie it, shake it loose and remove her horn-rimmed glasses, which would be his cue to utter the traditional words, ‘Why, Lucinda – but you’re beautiful.’

Lucinda is one of the good guys, but Coe can no longer do bad guys either. He brings on a minor character called Frederick Francis, a tax accountant who boasts of how much he is stealing from the Treasury, then makes a drunken pass at the novel’s heroine. ‘It doesn’t matter how generous the government is,’ Freddie complains, ‘however much they lower the top rate. If you’re bringing home ten million a year, you’re writing an annual cheque to the Inland Revenue for four million pounds…. That hurts.’ Later Coe tires of the accountant and has him eaten by a giant spider.

No great loss. What made the Winshaws so scary and real – legs kicking, fur bristling – was that they were human monsters. But Coe no longer makes the effort to find the humanity inside the monster. His protagonist Rachel ends up a live-in governess for two rich twins, and reflects that ‘The more time she spent with these strange, emotionless girls, the more Rachel felt that she was dealing with two of John Wyndham’s Midwich Cuckoos.’ The dead girls in The Shining had more character.

Sublimating characterisation to satire is a sign that your satire’s not working. For a leftwing writer like Coe, the initial problem is a massive overstimulus. Britain in 2015 is a satirist’s nightmare, because where do you even start? (The Ashcroft-Cameron feud, for example – how’s that for a story arc?) There’s so much, he doesn’t know quite what to focus on, so the reader’s impression is an unfocused tirade. Ghastly young people, ghastly social media, ghastly businessmen, ghastly vulgar rich people, ghastly tradesmen. Where does it end? Hilary’s daughter, Josephine Winshaw-Eaves, is looking to make a name as a columnist, so traps a benefit claimant – an LGBT woman of colour, who has a prosthetic leg – into a fraud sting, so she can then castigate her as ‘the archetypal paragon of modern entitlement.’ This setup takes Coe at least fifty pages to construct, when he used to be able to do it in a few words, as when he had Hilary declare: ‘Roll on [TV] deregulation, I say, if it means more power to the viewer’s elbow and more of our favourite shows with the likes of Brucie, Noel and Tarby (NB subs please check those names).’

In a long section called ‘The Comeback’ Coe sends a middle-aged ex musician – working in a library and wistful for another shot at stardom – on an I’m a Celebrity style game show. It is a disaster. The ex-rocker is humiliated on TV and on social media; her endurance in the jungle is described at painful length. ‘Now it was wriggling and thrashing even more violently inside there, and trying to escape out the back by forcing itself down her throat, but Val just screwed her eyes even tighter – her eyes from which tears of distress were starting to leak – and closed her mouth ever more firmly.’ Where Coe once gave us poignancy, he now only offers the pornography of disappointment. Why do novelists always see reality TV as such a reliable comic trove? And when was the last time you heard anyone talk about I’m a Celebrity?

One of Coe’s conscious themes, in fact, is the failure of satire to cope with rapidly changing times. His comedy blogger writes: ‘Every time we laugh at the venality of a corrupt politician, at the greed of a hedge fund manager, at the spurious outpourings of a rightwing columnist, we’re letting them off the hook.’ For me this segues into a beautiful passage in this new novel, about a historian recently deceased:

The whole thing that defined that situation, and the whole beauty of it, as far as he was concerned, was passivity. Other people were making choices for him. People he trusted. He loved that. He loved the idea of trusting people to make decisions on his behalf. Not all of them. Just some. Just enough so that you were free to live other parts of your life the way that you wanted. I suppose, apart from anything else, that’s one of the definitions of a happy childhood, isn’t it? But Roger also thought he could remember a time when we all felt that way. A time when we trusted the people in power, and their side of the deal was to treat us… not like children exactly, but like people who needed to be looked after now and again. As I supposed many of us do.

How fine is this prose, and what a number of thoughts it raises. There is reflection here on the nostalgia of the left – Alan Bennett told King’s, Cambridge recently that ‘There has been so little that has happened to England since the 1980s that I have been happy about or felt able to endorse’ – but more profound questions also. How much choice in life do we really need? Why is freedom sometimes scary? Do we perceive freedom differently as we get older? But what it makes me think of is the decline of liberal certainty, and for me this all seems to relate to comedy.

I come from the suburban progressive middle class, I grew up watching Drop the Dead Donkey and Have I Got News For You and Harry Enfield. For us the world was safe. Tories were in power, but they were comical and slow and easily outsmarted. Everyone shared our view, there was a time in the 1990s when you could get a reliable laugh just by saying ‘Michael Howard’ or ‘Group Four’. (At the tail end of the decade comedians Lee and Herring satirised the satire by having ‘the actor Kevin Eldon’ make lazy jokes about then prime minister ‘Tony Blairs’ only to take the huff when his audience raises reasonable objections).

The complacency rested upon a sense that some kinder order would prevail. Not now. Now the forces of reaction are smarter and faster and younger. Taking them on is a big challenge. Does Coe still have the necessary brio?

And yet it’s not such a cold world even now. A few weeks ago, I watched the Great British Bake Off finale with my girlfriend. Fifteen million people watched with us. This year the Bake Off was won by a British Asian woman from Leeds. The show is gentle, silly, irreverent and wry, centred mainly around cake and biscuit making. Hilary Winshaw would have hated it.


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