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.

The Hush With Texas: Friday Night Lights

October 11, 2015

I don’t get sport. I’ve played it, I’d prefer it if England won the World Cup, but I never really got it, never felt that passion that brings millions to the stands on a cold Saturday morning. I don’t think there’s something wrong with football because of this, it’s obviously something in me. Many book types don’t get it. George Orwell wrote that ‘Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting’ and that ‘big-scale sport is itself, I think, merely another effect of the causes that have produced nationalism.’ That is true… but it is not all of the truth.

The nearest I have come to understanding the passion is through watching the TV show Friday Night Lights, to which over the last few weeks I have become hopelessly addicted. It’s based on the book of the same name by H. G. Bissinger, who during the late 1980s spent a year in Odessa, Texas, a small town that revolved around high school football. Bissinger followed the coach and players of the Permian Panthers through the 1988 season: ‘for the next four months I was with them through every practice, every meeting, every game, to chronicle the highs and lows of being a high school football player in a town such as this. I went to school with them, and home with them, and rattlesnake hunting with them, and to church with them, because I was interested in portraying them as more than just football players, and also because I liked them.’

Riven with inequalities, poverty and violence, devastated by the oil bounce, Odessa was a town where football players carried a great and terrible burden of expectation. The man who has it worst is the head coach – Garry Gaines in the book, Eric Taylor in the series. Bissinger writes that ‘there was no profession in the state of Texas with worse job security than that of high school football coach.’ The coach works twenty hour days to get his team in shape. When he turns on the radio, he hears call-in radio shows scrutinise his every decision. His wife is used to making sacrifices, the kids are used to changing schools, because the local boosters won’t think twice about firing him if his record slows. Win a game, and he won’t have to pay for a drink for a week. Lose a game, and he can expect to find For Sale signs hammered into his lawn.

One of the contradictions in Friday Night Lights is the enormous effort and resources invested in something that is so transient. Bissinger speaks to a local dad who ‘saw the irresistible allure of high school sports, but he also saw an inevitable danger in adults living vicariously through their young. And he knew of no candle that burned out more quickly than that of the high school athlete.’ It’s the centre of everything, resources are piled into football programmes while basic academics goes to the wall, and yet for most of the young men on the field, sports won’t be a lasting career for them. It’s not going to feed their children. Permian lads play a little football and then become farmers or oilmen and wind up broke or in prison or dead.

In popular culture the high school coach is supposed to be everything that’s practical and wise. He provides life lessons that players take with them off the field. TV coach Eric Taylor seems to fulfil that for his players and for us: he’s sensible, monogamous, pragmatic, tough but ultimately fair: he’s morally upright but never priggish, command without pomposity, straight down the line without being boring. The coach knows all the practical things – but he also surely knows the transience of all this, how brief those lights do shine. He knows most of these guys will never make it to the professional leagues. But he knows also that everything is transient, that when the business has crashed and the kids have grown and the house has been sold and your wife has walked out (worse, she might have stayed) the memories of your time under the lights are still going to burn bright in your head and heart. The coach is a kind of shaman. He knows that transience is at the heart of all we love. And you suspect that Taylor (played brilliantly by Kyle Chandler, with just the hint maybe of a Baltimore accent) knows this, too. ‘There’s a joy to this game,’ Taylor tells his players. ‘Is there not?’

Bissinger wrote his book ‘not with the clever eyes of a novelist, but the clear eyes of a journalist.’ Bissinger did get sport and understood the magic of the lights. He liked living in Odessa and he liked the people he met there. But he didn’t bury the town’s dark side, and as a result his book divided its readers. From his afterword, written ten years after the first edition:

Over the years I have been accused of betrayal, and sensationalism, and taking information out of context, and mis-quoting. I am not surprised by these accusations, nor am I troubled by them. When I first arrived in Odessa, I anticipated a book very much in the tradition of the film Hoosiers, a portrait of the way in which high school sports can bring a community together. There were elements of that bond in Odessa, and they were reflected in the book. But along the way some other things happened— the most ugly racism I have ever encountered, utterly misplaced educational priorities, a town that wasn’t bad or evil but had lost any ability to judge itself. It would have been a journalistic disgrace to ignore these elements.

You’d expect the TV show to gloss over a community’s meaner spirit. But Friday Night Lights as a series wasn’t afraid to portray failure, crime, small town racism and cutthroat small town politics. (It featured, for instance, the bravest pregnancy storyline I’ve seen in a US show). For the most part the programme is standard high school stuff, the characters are little more than Breakfast Club stereotypes, but the show compels because of the unashamed warmth and naturalism with which it plays out its stories. Like I say, I was hooked. I even kind of understood the football scenes. God help me, I found myself cheering them on.


(Image: Wikipedia)

Fear and Faith: Michel Houellebecq’s Submission

October 10, 2015

houellebecqcharlieSubmission is a novel written to be misunderstood. Fans and enemies will love it, hate it and get it wrong. And with good reason. Houellebecq’s last novel about Islam – for which he was widely condemned, and even taken to court – was published just weeks before 9/11. Submission came out on January 7 this year – the day of the Charlie Hebdo attacks. In a further cruel irony, the magazine had caricatured Houellebecq on its cover that day. The cartoon Houellebecq, wearing a wizard’s hat and a deranged expression, declares: ‘In 2015, I’ll lose my teeth’ and ‘In 2022, I’ll observe Ramadan!’ Houellebecq has some timing.

The satire riffs on Houellebecq’s propensity to predict the future. He’s a Cassandra who is cursed never to shut up. His breakthrough book, Atomised, has the human race becoming extinct and replaced by peaceful clones: this development is depicted as a utopia but in a later novel, The Possibility of an Island, Houellebecq revisits the clone future and reveals it to be desolate and sad. The clones are smarter and more peaceful than their predecessors, but they miss humanity and its messy instincts they left behind.

Houellebecq is a fine observer of the human condition and social problems. The stupidity of market culture, the difficulty and sorrow that so often characterises human relations – no one draws it with more style. But Houllebecq then insists on coming up with solutions, and the solutions are always ridiculous. In Atomised, he wants to let humanity die out altogether: in Platform, he proposes an international system of indentured Far Eastern sexual exploitation, all for the benefit of a few middle aged frustrated European males. Houellebecq favours the ‘mad professor’ style of literature.

Platform is what the kids today would call a ‘problematic’ novel. At its beginning the narrator’s father is murdered by a young Muslim criminal: it ends with the narrator’s girlfriend murdered by Islamist terrorists. The bulk of the book follows narrator Michel as he gets together with the girlfriend Valérie and they set up their sex tourism business. For such a notorious grump Houellebecq is very good at writing about happy relationships. But outside the pleasant sensual world of the protagonists’ love affair, there’s a constant undertow of threat. A colleague of Valérie’s is raped on a train by West Indians, banlieues erupt in flames, the fear and hostility is palpable. ‘In the papers now it was teachers being stabbed, nursery school teachers being raped, fire engines attacked with Molotov cocktails, handicapped people thrown through the windows of trains because they had ‘looked the wrong way’ at some gang leader.’ Platform is not against Islam so much as it is against a certain kind of young Asian man – the ‘criminalMuslimman’ of Western stereotype.

Fear haunts Submission as well. ‘You could make out groups of masked men roaming around with assault rifles and automatic weapons,’ its narrator reports. ‘Windows had been broken, here and there cars were on fire’. Houellebecq would have made a great horror writer, and here he captures the fraught atmosphere of a city tipping into violence. The instinctive fear is matched with a more intellectual variant. Adam Shatz, in his masterful review of Submission, writes that ‘fear of Islam, and of Muslims, has never been the exclusive property of the far right in France: it has always been rooted in the widespread demographic nightmare of being overrun by Muslims, of the coming ‘Eurabia’… Houellebecq’s novel is sprinkled with winking allusions to anti-Muslim conspiracy theorists like Bat Ye’or, the doyenne of Eurabia literature.’ It’s a piece of conspiracy theory that many artists flirted with – ‘has feminism cost us Europe?’ Martin Amis wondered in 2008. The idea is that the liberation from the duty to reproduce will destroy liberal societies.

They must know that this dog is shot. What everyone misses about European freedom of movement is that it is only for Europeans. Katy Long in her book The Huddled Masses, claims that the EU spends 2 billion euro per year on its border agency, Frontex. ‘For the Europe that guarantees its citizens’ mobility is the same Europe set on keeping others out.’ She goes on to say this:

At the height of the Arab Spring in February 2011, for instance, Frontex put into effect Operation Hermes, which aimed to detect – and to deter – African migrants from crossing the Mediterranean… The results of Frontex’s industry must be measured not just in money spent, or illegal crossings detected – some 25,000 in 2013, an average of one every four hours – but in migrants dead. At least 20,000 would-be migrants are thought to have died on the Mediterranean sea in the past 20 years trying to reach Europe, as smugglers pack leaky boats and coastguards are accused of looking the other way. Numerous human rights advocates have warned that Frontex’s operations have blocked refugees from being able to apply for vital protection, as is their right under international – and EU – law.

So much for the social democratic paradise. Conspiracy about Muslim immigration and birth rates should have died the day Alan Kurdi’s corpse washed up on a Turkish beach.

But Submission isn’t a book so much about Islam as the religious impulse. The takeover of France by religious extremists is played out with care and skill: there’s no big chunks of unlikely exposition. (It doesn’t even feel that implausible. A lecturer on political campaigns told me in 2014 that ‘if you wanted to take over the Labour Party and turn it into your own political vehicle you could probably do it. You’d need about five grand.’ Such things can be done.) Houellebecq has tremendous fun with the interplay of the reality and the dystopia, sending up anti-Israel boycotts, the nativist right and leftists who support radical Islam – shocking in the early years of the century, but a commonplace today.

But Houellebecq is nothing if not discursive. Throughout his novels, the storyline – what there is of it – is routinely interrupted by long passages of authorial comment on anything and everything: a critique of Larry Clark’s films, a tribute to Agatha Christie, a minor study of the parasites that live in summer meadows. His mind wanders, and he makes no apology for it. And in this book he has an excuse: the narrator is a university lecturer specialising in the works of J K Huysmans. Submission starts off with a wide scope but ends up following the scholar’s relationship with his master. At the end of the story Francois ends up finishing his relationship with Huysmans – the longest and most durable of his life – and converts to Islam.

For all Platform‘s erotica and violence, it had a serious point. Michel and Valérie are sensualists who assume that sex drives most people’s lives, and their business model is predicated on that basis. They learn the hard way that human beings still have a different kind of passion. Despite all the talk about supremacy of the market, ideology and belief systems still exist, still motivate. You fuck with this at your peril, Houellebecq warns. In Submission he takes the question deeper: why do people have such passions? Why do people believe in god? Where does religion come from?

Stanz also makes the point that, for a novel about Islam, there aren’t many Muslims in Submission. Houellebecq focuses on the impact of Islam upon the unbeliever. The reactionary faith turns out to dovetail more or less exactly with first world problems. Many conservatives have a secret, or not so secret, admiration for societies where women are kept to the home and shoplifters have their hands cut off. And the myth that there is no misogyny on the Western left is as dead as Eurabia. Houellebecq’s characters tend to build their routines around drinking, smoking, reading and sex. Write something down, drink a glass of wine, do some reading, jerk off, meet a woman, do some more writing, more wine, jerk off again – isn’t that the middle aged male writing ideal, Houellebecq asks, what we’ve been striving for since Hemingway was in full pomp? His attitudes to women are quite the most tiresome aspect of the book. Women! What can one do with them? They get old, they lose interest, they become melodramatic. And yet he’s still fascinated with them. François relates that he ‘once met a girl – a pretty, attractive girl – who told me she fantasised about Jean-François Copé. It took me several days to get over it. Really, with girls today, all bets are off.’

Houellebecq’s conclusion is a variation on John Updike’s idea that god exists because of the human desire that god should exist. When Houellebecq talks about submission he means it in an almost mystical sense, to accept what is and what comes. ‘The shocking and simple idea, which had never been so forcefully expressed, that the summit of human happiness resides in the most absolute submission.’ François submits to the new Islamist order. Most people would in that situation, because most people tend to do what they are told. The deal is sweetened by a fat salary, a pension, and several new wives (again, the constant riffing on Muslim polygamy is another thing that grates after awhile). But the real dealbreaker is the submission itself. A reason not to think. An escape from the terror and brilliance of living. As Atwood said: what an available temptation.

Perhaps this isn’t a novel about the religious impulse so much about the human desire for stability. The recent vogue for faith of any kind, the learned professors who rave about medieval belief systems, the activists who indulge maniacs and killers and call it dialogue – it all comes from this, the lazy ennui and weary exasperation of people who have taken all they can from a free country and now hurl their toys out of the pram. The director of the Islamic Sorbonne, and François’s new boss, experiences his crucial disillusionment when he discovers that the bar of the Hotel Metropole has closed down:

I was stupefied … To think that until then one could order sandwiches and beers, Viennese chocolates and cakes with cream in this absolute masterpiece of decorative art, that one could live everyday life surrounded by beauty, and that all this could disappear in one stroke in a European capital! … Yes, that was the moment when I understood: Europe had already committed suicide … The next day, I went to see an imam in Zaventem. And the day after that – Easter Monday – in the presence of a dozen witnesses, I pronounced the ritual formula of conversion to Islam.

There we have it. The anti consumerist ideology cultivated by authoritarians of all cultures is revealed to be… a product of consumerism. I don’t think that’s all there is to the religious impulse. Life is scary and confusing. You look for something that makes you feel safe. But the fear is part of this business of living and the fear too is yours. Henry Miller, in The Wisdom of the Heart, calls this the ‘Paradise of Neurosis’:

In his present fearsome state man seems to have one attitude, escape, wherein he is fixed as in a nightmare. Not only does he refuse to accept his fears, but worse, he fears his fears… To imagine that we are going to be saved by outside intervention, whether in the shape of an analyst, a dictator, a savior, or even God, is sheer folly.

‘There are not enough lifeboats to go around,’ Miller writes, and: ‘what is needed more than lifeboats is lighthouses. A fuller, clearer vision – not more safety appliances!’

Houellebecq almost despite himself is providing that full clear vision: he’s a lighthouse keeper, even if his beam is a little shaky and he does tend to fall asleep at the controls. You won’t agree with him. But how could you not love a writer so persistently leftfield. The line from Submission that made me laugh out loud comes when Houellebecq critiques the Christian parable of the adulterer and the crowd: ‘Let he who is without sin, cast the first stone.’ His response to this is: ‘All you’d have to do is get hold of a seven-year-old child – he’d have cast the first stone, the little fucker.’


Into the Garden: Dave Haslam’s Life After Dark

September 20, 2015

LifeafterDarkTowards the end of Dave Haslam‘s odyssey into British nightlife, he employs a metaphor that is unusual, even startling in its brilliance: ‘the enduring idea of a secret garden, the midnight garden – the clock strikes thirteen and through a door a different world appears.’ The author of Manchester, England, an essential history of that city, and a former Hacienda DJ, Haslam knows that the night was never centred on Soho or South Kensington or any regional superclub. ‘The best club in the world is the one that changed your life,’ Haslam writes. ‘[T]o be honest, most of the time I’m prejudiced in favour of the dives.’ He’s travelled the length of the UK, and through social history (beginning with the music hall craze of the nineteenth century) to unearth those lost and timeless moments.

For Life After Dark Haslam interviewed maybe hundreds of ex promoters, DJs and businessmen, old men and women with lines on their face and funny accents and stories to tell about locations that are now apartment blocks or Tesco Extras or Ibis hotels but where, once, something special occurred. As a career DJ himself, who’s always been surrounded by musicians, Haslam has a lot of tales to tell, and the book quickly suffers the weakness of comprehensive history, lapsing into a blur of names, places and dates. He also has a weakness for celebrity: Life After Dark has a preponderance of big names from various eras – ‘the likes of’ – who dominate the narrative. It would have been better to frame the book with memories from punters who were there at the time. Haslam also can’t always distinguish between anecdotes that entertain in the retelling and those ‘you had to be there’ moments. The story of the music hall performer who killed a heckler that interrupted his act (the court was sympathetic and sentenced him to just fourteen days) deserved a mass market audience: the variations of ‘and then Morrissey fell off the stage’ probably didn’t.

Yet Life After Dark is a lovely book, with many interesting folds and corners. ‘Despite the reputation of the British for being reserved,’ Haslam writes, ‘there are long traditions of hedonism in this country, citizens living for the weekend.’ It’s been a foundation of our lives ever since people began to leave the fields of feudalism for the market towns, which slowly but surely became cities. And those who look down on bar culture forget that it reflects, sometimes outpaces, social change. Haslam is fascinating on the unofficial ‘colour bar’ that operated on doors well into the latter half of the twentieth century; the ludicrous and sexist restrictions on women entering licensed premises: the raids on gay venues carried out by police, well into the 1980s. (I can remember listening to elderly LGBTQ people talking about the raids on various underground Manchester clubs at an event in Chorlton, thirty years later.)

Haslam takes his time getting to the most compelling part of his story: the rave scene. The British establishment had no idea how to handle rave. A disparate network of electro freaks, artists, mystics, hedonists and business people were holding massive parties in fields and abandoned warehouses. The organisers of the gigantic free parties were liberals, positive and compassionate, but they were also entrepreneurs who had a healthy scepticism towards authority and the big state. For the audience, acid house was a liberation from social rules. Men could go to a rave club without worrying about getting into a fight: women could go without the fear of being groped, followed or even assaulted by drunken morons. MDMA suspended the weekend’s conventions. Rave was a mob with a soul.

The government decided that hordes of blissed-out pillheads dancing all over the English countryside was not what it had in mind when it said it wanted to liberate the British economy. It introduced the 1994 Criminal Justice Act, which specifically outlawed gatherings ‘wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats’. But by then the scene was dying anyway. Attracted by drug profits, gangsters moved into rave clubs and stripped them like termites. Deaths from MDMA overdoses turned the general public off the scene altogether. The idealists and the businessmen discovered a hard truth, the flipside to Dave Haslam’s garden metaphor, and something F Scott Fitzgerald knew from the Jazz Age: ‘Et in arcadia ego – beauty is not alone in the garden. Death is waiting there too.’

Two hundred years after we left the fields, there’s a lot more free entertainment, available at the peck of a keyboard, but people still go to pubs and clubs. For all that we’re supposed to be digital addicts, Britons like to physically leave the house and interact with other human beings. In his final chapter, Haslam argues that the trend is instead towards more ‘primary experience’ – more music festivals, pub gigs and literary festivals where even solitary bookworms can meet their favourite authors face to face. Manchester, England features a quote from Arthur Shadwell: ‘What most human beings like is companionship, life, things going on, the presence and stir of other human beings.’ He was writing about Manchester in 1906 but could have been about anywhere and anywhen. The cliché is true. We are social animals.

Considering the weight of tradition behind UK nightlife (and its contribution to the economy: the Institute of Economic Affairs claims that alcohol use alone nets the Treasury a surplus of £6.5 billion a year) it’s a sad surprise that the authorities think so little of it. Of the temperance movements in the nineteenth century, Haslam writes: ‘it was really only working-class intemperance that was considered problematic and targeted by a number of mainly failed initiatives.’ Plus ca change. Today, the community is important – except when it comes to your local, which is being hammered by business rates and the smoking ban. Heritage is important, except when it comes to historic dance halls which can be demolished to put up more chain shops and business hotels. We live in a time when a city centre venue, that has operated for decades, can be threatened with closure because some guy has moved into an apartment block next door and complains about the noise.

Of course, pubs aren’t always good places, and no one likes offensive drunkenness, noise nuisance or ASB. But as Anna Minton explains in Ground Control, her indispensable book about the hollowing out of the English city, this kind of community safety politics is essentially self defeating. Minton writes:

But it’s not just a question of creating atmosphere and taste: there are psychological dangers as well in creating places which have too much security and as a result are too safe and too controlled. The problem is that these environments remove personal responsibility, undermining our relationship with the surrounding environment and with each other and removing the continual, almost subliminal interaction with strangers which is part of a healthy city life. The consequence is that people are far more frightened when they do have to confront the unexpected, which can never be entirely removed from daily life.

Haslam ends on a positive note. The recession has left large numbers of void buildings and young people with nothing to do. It’s the paradox of creativity that in hardship something can rise. More and more of us are finding the door to that secret garden, and wandering in.


Reach for the Dead: Tessa McWatt’s London

August 23, 2015

higheredLast October Amelia Gentleman wrote a long Guardian piece about an unexpected twist in our troubled economy: the rise of funeral poverty. With crema costs rising and funeral benefits flatlined, increasingly people find that they don’t enough money to give their loved ones a reasonable internment. Gentleman speaks to a woman who was quoted £2,300 by the Co-Op and ‘chose instead to buy a shroud online (£180) and arranged a transit van to take the body from the hospice to the crematorium.’ An ex railwayman only avoided the nine o’clock trot because ‘when he died, social workers found he was carrying his life savings of £500, which were used to pay for the more desirable slot.’

I thought of this piece when I read Tessa McWatt’s Higher Ed. It’s a London novel, and kind of a campus novel in a way, one with hardly any students in it. Higher Ed has a decent range of characters and a multiplex narrative: there’s some real insight, and the backdrop of city problems is reasonably evoked. But McWatt has a tendency to frontload. Her first chapter introduces us to Francine, a university QA professional in her early fifties. Francine barely gets a line of dialogue out before the interior monologue takes over and we get the full character backstory: US transplant, demonstrations at Penn State, disastrous relationship with an unreliable male. Higher Ed has many memorable moments but an air of frantic vagueness characterises its prose.

Except when it comes to death. Driving home from work Francine witnesses a man being struck and killed. Francine is haunted by the young man’s death and the prospect that someone else could be imprisoned for a tragedy she herself might have caused. Law student Olivia tracks down her lost father, who happens to be barely holding together a disintegrating council department responsible for interring the growing numbers of London’s unremarked dead – homeless, bankrupts, suicides, illegals, those for one reason or another are forgotten before they die. McWatt’s characters are preoccupied with restructures and downsizing: HR culture permeates everything and the threat of unemployment is never far from the surface. Higher Ed is brilliant on the bureaucratisation of work and life. England is full of people churning out action plans, person specs and five-year strategies but we can’t even bury our dead. ‘Not everything is measurable,’ protests a lecturer, fighting for his job. McWatt’s novel is a good attempt at quantifying these unmeasurables – even though few of us might be listening.

Beware the Friendly Stranger

August 21, 2015

At a time when most people are supposed to be turned off from politics there comes a surge of genuine popular enthusiasm for a certain politician. At first glance you would say that there was nothing particularly inspiring or distinctive about the politician. The politician had spent most of his life in trade unions and local government, then served as MP for 22 years of a North London liberal enclave which, despite its chatterati reputation, suffered from terrible poverty also. The politician was a career backbencher, voting against his party on hundreds of occasions: as a person by all accounts he is intelligent and compassionate, a 66-year old man in old shirts and a grey beard, the kind of quiet, brilliant fellow with a gentle voice you find in badly lit corridors of universities or council offices, measuring out his life in meetings and biros. No one thought this politician would ever become a serious contender, let alone frontrunner for the leader of the opposition party. But that is what has happened.

It’s not clear that the politician would even like to be Prime Minister someday. The politician was included on the ballot by other, more senior political figures who wanted a ‘broad debate’ and wanted to make the party more democratic, only when the politician began to accumulate mass support the senior figures backpedalled and said, oh actually, we didn’t want that broad a debate and actually, we didn’t want the party to be that fucking democratic. As I write data clerks are firing off exclusion letters to people who have registered mainly to vote for the politician.

But by then it was too late. The politician ignited something in a way that I hadn’t seen a politician do for a long time. The politician travels the country and addresses packed-out meetings full of people cheering for the politician. I go on social media and there are people I know, people I respect endorsing the politician, hashtags proliferate cheerleading the politician. I go down my local pub and there are regulars there debating the merits and electability of the politician. If you are in Islington tonight you can go and see the politician at a fundraiser featuring music, speeches and a ‘socialist magician’ (‘fits in nicely with Jeremy’s ideas about quantitative easing’). I even come across an anthology from up and coming poets, filled with paeans of praise to the politician.

The new thing is that the politician seems to be getting support from people who don’t normally get involved in politics or even vote – smart people, young people, renting people, the precariat, the creatives, the artists, the hipsters, the clued up working class, ordinary people in ordinary jobs, who have been told loud and clear by various governments and movements that, thanks, but we don’t need you.

I understand the weariness with dull, authoritarian machine politicians that have hectored the British electorate for twenty years, and made this country a more difficult place to live in. So I understand to some extent the excitement over this new politician, who is saying something a little different. But how different?

The politician has some policy ideas that make sense to me, and that would be the better choice for our society. Other policy ideas he has just seem silly. Let’s print money! Let’s reopen the mines! Fuck NATO! Which leads me to the politician’s foreign policy. Like many far left politicians he’s against ‘illegal wars’ and America and Israel. He also carries a lot of the standard, stinking far left baggage – appearances on propaganda channels owned by hostile foreign powers, links to Holocaust deniers, Islamist maniacs, 9/11 deniers, LaRouche conspiracy organisations. Such troubling alliances are well documented – the skeletons are out of this guy’s closet and dancing down the streets – but the politician barely deigns to address them. When he is directly challenged, the politician becomes aggressive and unhinged in a way that you wouldn’t expect such a gentle, caring man to be. Interviewers who question him are targeted with foul abuse on Twitter.

I can’t get past the politician’s apparent admiration for totalitarian nuts but for many of his supporters it doesn’t register. It’s a neoliberal lie. They’re running scared. Jeremy just happened to be in a room with these people, and coincidences do happen. And the far left’s love affair with the far right has been part of the political backdrop for so long. Its their culture. As Oliver Kamm wrote recently: ‘It’s no longer possible to assume that a declared progressive will defend free speech, secularism, women’s rights, homosexual equality, cosmopolitanism and the spread of scientific inquiry.’

As I say, among the lunatics there are good, smart people who have thrown their considerable energies and talents behind this politician. I would say to these people, my friends, good people: think again. Even grey haired men with gentle voices are susceptible to the lure of power and can justify all kinds of things in the name of the Worker’s Paradise. When this guy lets you down (and they always do) you will be disillusioned, you will turn off from a system that needs you but will break you if it gets the chance. All the meetings, rallies, demonstrations, fundraisers, articles, campaigns behind this one man – imagine if this energy had been thrown into our communities. We could help to feed the hungry and dispossessed in our society, we could challenge unjust laws, we could bring our empty houses up to code and get people living in them, we could revitalise deadbeat neighbourhoods, we could protect those among us who are targeted for speaking out, we could fight injustice for people who don’t have representation, we could help people to help themselves and to fight for themselves. All this you can get on board with no matter what your politics are. Just, please, don’t put your faith in this ageing prince of the 1980s left. How does the song go? Don’t get fooled again.


(Image by Twilldun)

Fun with Tumblr

August 11, 2015

As part of an ongoing effort to get myself at least into the early 2010s I have set up a tumblr page. It’s based on the often bizarre promo emails from self and indie publishers that I get asking me to review various surreal titles.

The link is here, I hope you enjoy it, I hope also to update it as more emails come in (currently around a half dozen weekly): if you are a reviewer who also gets sent crazy spam promo review emails, please feel free to submit your own posts.

Blood, Bombs and Rock and Roll

August 9, 2015

I’m late with this response to Giles Fraser’s piece last week. I certainly cannot equal the wit of my old Shiraz comrade Jim Denham, who describes Fraser as ‘a caricature comes true – or rather two caricatures, both old favourites from Private Eye: the Rev JC Flannel and Dave Spart.’

In it Fraser begins by complaining about the lack of respect shown to Church of England priests in general. ‘Under pressure not to ‘do God’,’ he explains, ‘the wet non-committal English clergyman became a figure of fun – at best, a local amateur social worker, and at worst, a social climbing hypocrite’ and traces this to the great secularist compromise of the Enlightenment: ‘If not from its inception, then certainly from the end of the English civil war, the big idea of the C of E was to prevent radicalisation – precisely the sort of radicalisation that led to religious people butchering each other throughout the 1630s and 40s.’ But the downside was that ‘God is defeated by religion. Indeed, one could even say that, for the English establishment, that is precisely the purpose of religion. They trap Him in boring services so that people won’t notice the revolution for which He is calling.’

I would have thought this a fair tradeoff, after all there’s not much nostalgia out there for medieval absolutism and witch burning, but Fraser laments the vicar’s drop in status. Maybe that’s just his perception of it though. To vary Stewart Lee’s joke about Ben Elton: it’s not that people don’t respect Christians, or Christianity – they just don’t respect Giles Fraser. His next para gives some insight into why that may be.

And then along comes Islam – and, thankfully, it disrupts this absurd game and refuses to play by the rules. Its practitioners want to talk about God, sex and politics rather than mortgages, school places and the latest Boden catalogue. And good for them. But David Cameron’s whole attack upon ‘non-violent extremism’, his upping the ante on the Prevent agenda, is an attempt to replay that clapped-out C of E strategy of stopping people talking about God in a way that might have social or political consequences. Cameron, of course, thinks of this sort of political God-talk as radical and extreme – which, by the standards of English dinner-party rules, it most certainly is. But had the Levellers of the 17th century not been radical or extreme, they would not have introduced England to democracy in the first place (something for which they were eventually rounded up and shot).

Where exactly to begin? Does Giles Fraser know so little history that he can’t make distinctions between radicals for democracy and the radicalism of the black hole? (I don’t recall the Levellers slaughtering people on beaches, although admittedly I do need to work on my theory.) Fraser ends on a petulant flourish: ‘I believe there is an authority greater than yours – one I would obey before I would obey the laws of this land. And if that makes me a dangerous extremist, Mr Cameron, then you probably ought to come over to south London and arrest me now.’

Probably the Prime Minister has better things to do than to personally arrest people who disagree with him. That said, there is a huge debate to be had about anti terror strategy. Do we set a watch on any provincial maniac even if they have committed no apparent offence? Do we bug children’s phones in case their parents spirit them away to a war zone? This is way above my expertise, maybe above Fraser’s as well. Fraser’s more interested in the passion. There he is, despairing of old maids and warm beer, and then – here comes Islamism, and it’s like Elvis crashing a tea-dance. Belief! Conviction! Wow!

How bored would you have to be to welcome a movement that beheads aid workers and treats women as slaves? Maybe Fraser just needs to get out more, and go to more interesting parties, ones with sex and politics on the agenda. He says, of course, that ‘I condemn absolutely any theology that calls for or encourages violence.’ But what we’re talking about here is a very dull, fundamentalist Wahhabi/Salafist variant of Islam, one to which hardly anybody subscribes. If Islamism didn’t create violence it would be a marginal issue in the UK, like Scientology or Mormonism. As it is, the only reason the British are talking about Islamism is because Islamists are killing people… albeit mainly Muslims in developing countries. Maybe next time Fraser goes to the migrant camp church in Calais he should listen to some Syrian or Iraqi asylum seekers and discover exactly what it is they’re running from.

So despite Fraser’s disclaimer, maybe it’s not the sex, politics and God that attracts him – maybe it’s that buzz, the thrill of the abyss, blood and bombs and rock and roll. He wouldn’t be the first. Fuck him if that’s how he feels. As for the dull bourgeois civilisation he criticises, well, it’s not ideal, but most of us seem to get along. As Kent Brockman said on The Simpsons, you’ll forgive me if I keep my old Pontiac.


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