An Elephant in the Room

July 9, 2019

It’s a national sport in political journalism to tell the Labour Party what to do. And you don’t have to be a Westminster insider to see that the Corbyn project is fracturing. Perhaps an old-school purge of deviationist elements might help? That seems to be the advice of Guardian columnist Dawn Foster.

Let’s start with Tom Watson, ‘the deputy leader of the Labour party and a lifelong professional wrecker, who has made it his official duty to complain weekly to the Sunday papers, without suggesting any concrete proposals for how to bring the party forward.’ Foster writes that if Watson ‘had any guts, he would quit the party and try to prove that his ideas have electoral traction. Yet, as he has probably discovered, it is hard to come up with bold and original ideas that benefit the electorate and prove popular with voters: it is far easier to stay in a party, wrecking it week by week, hoping to terminally undermine the leader and then inherit the ruins.’

I never liked Tom Watson, he always seemed to me a standard machine blowhard of the Labour right, but this attack on him I think says more about Foster herself than Watson. There is a political narrative that is coming together in hard left circles. I’ll try and summarise it here.

1) The Corbyn Labour Party is not perfect. It’s been weak on many issues and we will continue to hold the leadership to account on them.

2) But – in a two party system Corbyn’s Labour offers the only real alternative to Tory neoliberalism. Millions of suffering people all over the country need a Corbyn led Labour government for that reason.

3) There are people on the liberal left who have become obsessed with metropolitan issues like Brexit. By breaking from Corbyn’s Labour, campaigning for People’s Vote, setting up third parties etc they risk splitting the opposition and will guarantee Tory rule for ever.

4) The liberals, remainers etc don’t understand the consequences of austerity in this country because they are all part of the metropolitan elite. By the same token, people in working class communities don’t care about Brexit etc they only want a socialist government. For their sake we need to make that happen.

As Foster writes:

Watson’s wing of the party is convinced there is a huge untapped reserve of voters who share their precise politics, but exactly where these voters live remains to be seen. I travel extensively around the country, and the only time I meet these people are in TV and radio studios. The electoral failure of the Independent Group/Change UK (or whatever the handful of remaining ex-Labour and Tory MPs now call themselves) should be a warning to the Labour right, but their self-confidence is far greater than their analytical ability.

But in Foster’s article, she makes a couple of big assumptions:

Centrist thinking is focused on two false premises. The first is that the 2012 London Olympic ceremony represented an idyllic high-point of culture and unity in the UK, rather than occurring amid the brutal onslaught of austerity, with food bank use growing and the bedroom tax ruining lives. The second is that the UK became divided by Brexit and the 2016 vote, rather than it being a symptom of long-term problems: the decline of industry and the public sector begun by Margaret Thatcher and continued by Tony Blair and David Cameron; vast inequality of opportunity, wealth and health; and the number of people being routinely ignored in a system with a huge democratic and electoral deficit.

No doubt there is a foolish nostalgia on the remain left for the rule of George Osborne. But some of us ‘centrists’ remember the coalition years well, thank you. It is because we have seen poverty, immiseration and totally avoidable suffering that characterised the 2010s, it is because we have these formative experiences and unalterable memories that we voted against and campaigned against Brexit. Some of us aren’t comfortable or stupid enough to believe the lies that everything will be better or fine. I hope it doesn’t turn out that way but at the moment our future post Brexit looks like neoliberalism on rocket fuel.

And Brexit, really, is not the main issue here. Not even close.

Foster complains that Tom Watson ‘was rending his garments at the fact that former Labour members have released confidential material to the media, despite signing legal agreements not to do so: this is the same Watson who campaigned against hacking victims having emails and other data illegally intercepted.’

This is a sly and careful sentence, that’s worth looking at. You can start by clicking the link in Foster’s sentence – it’s a report from the Guardian’s Andrew Sparrow. Sparrow is following up a scoop from the Times, which revealed that Labour is threatening its own former staff with legal action for ‘wanton disregard’ of NDAs. (The law firm involved is that tribune of the left-behind: Carter Ruck.)

Why the harsh response? Could it be that the leadership is concerned about a forthcoming BBC documentary into the party’s culture of antisemitism, which follows the launch of a formal investigation by the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

Forget the juxtaposition of individual NDA breaches with phone hacking (are we really, here, comparing like with like?) Listen to what you’re not being told. The narrative of Remainer wreckers etc doesn’t have an explanation for the far more significant problem with the party under its current stewardship: and that many of us would oppose and fear a Corbyn led Labour government for that reason. I don’t think a Corbyn led Labour government would be antisemitic in the 20th century totalitarian sense of that word, but I do think there would be a May style ‘hostile environment’ policy – against Jews, and probably against anyone else deemed suspicious.

I know that there are potential Labour voters who have ‘priced in’ the darkness of the leadership. But I think that there are fewer of them with each passing year. I am not sure that Labour’s current brand of toxic racism and half-arsed welfare policies are the electoral draw that Dawn Foster believes. Who knows whether Labour will win power though. It certainly doesn’t deserve to.

The Love Song of Lina Wolff

July 6, 2019

The Polyglot Lovers is a hard novel to write about. Reviewers tend to be impressed but bemused, and for a hook they focused on Max Lamas, the narcissistic novelist who narrates the middle third of the story. In a book full of strange people who act in unnatural ways for unknown reasons, Max is a recognisable type – the egomaniac writer who thinks he’s god’s gift. He is tired, ageing and in a permanent state of refined ennui. ‘The pain I’m enduring is like dirty water. All that muck swirling around,’ Max tells us. ‘It’s like a herd of donkeys is galloping back and forth across my heart. Back and forth, back and forth. Muddy hooves and common braying.’ He is in an unhappy marriage – ‘My wife’s back was, on certain nights at the start of this story, an unvoiced rejection made of skin and vertebrae’ – and the only thing he lives for is sex. To the psychic in this story, he is empty – ‘you can keep your money, because I can’t see anything at all.’

Translator Saskia Vogel does a marvellous job of conveying the three dramatically different registers of Wolff’s novel. There is Max and his galloping pretension – ‘But the tristesse, oh, the tristesse! No one can be saved from it!’ Ellinor is a martial arts ace and looking for love online. She is subdued, but relentlessly curious about the world. And the final part of the book is told by Lucrezia who is the last of an ancient and distinguished Roman family. Her voice is intelligent, assured and steeped in history. Phrases jump out you as you read The Polyglot Lovers, like chapter headings or greeting cards written by someone damaged and wise:

You lose the intimacy, and intimacy is the stream leading to the spring of life.

… the long and arduous journey into another person.

Everything is going to work out, but in a way that’s unimaginable to you right now.

You find the best stories where no one is thinking about stories, where no one is aware that stories even exist.

The big plot strand is the fate of Max’s manuscript, written in Mogliano, stolen, pissed upon, transported to Stockholm and finally burned to ashes. Other texts abound: Max and his acolyte Ruben both adore Houellebecq, and Stephen King is mentioned as well – not often those two are linked (though King wrote an introduction to Houellebecq’s early study of H P Lovecraft). The narrative makes little sense, but it holds you – one event sashays into the next with the improbable grace of a fairytale.

In her review, Joanna Kavenna writes that: ‘One final irony is that Max, genius/pig depending on your perspective, is a character in a novel by Lina Wolff, and so is the insane reviewer Ruben, and so, in the end, is a fictional version of Houellebecq. They are all trapped in Wolff’s merciless novel, and are ritually tormented until she has had enough.’

But isn’t the prominence of Max’s voice its own irony? T S Eliot in his classic poem ‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’ imagined a man like Max – bored, humble and yearning, but with his own resilient kind of egotism. Prufrock thinks he has ‘known them all already, known them all: Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons’ but there is something he’s missing. Eliot highlights the famous line, dismissing the women and also separating them from Prufrock’s narration:

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

The Polyglot Lovers abounds with fascinating women – Mildred the blind psychic, the suicidal receptionist Max seduces, Max’s own brilliant philosophical wife, the generations of women still around and vocal in the ruins of Lucrezia’s family. Wolff is laughing at Max, but she puts him in the foreground. Max wants a polyglot lover but doesn’t hear women’s voices in any language. Max takes no more notice of them then Prufrock did the women who talk of Michelangelo: like Prufrock, Max is lost in his solipsistic vision and doesn’t hear ‘the music from a farther room.’

Wolff is looking hard at her own monsters, but she is also looking hard at you – the reader – and asking: what are you focusing on? Is it you that’s missing something?

With Hilarious Consequences

June 30, 2019

I wondered why Blackadder was trending today, and learned that the original team are planning a fifth series of the hit comedy. Like most people I think it’s a bad idea, and indeed from the report it seems this wasn’t much more than a boozy lunch in Soho House. It may well come to nothing.

I belong to the last generation of Blackadder bores – people who grew up with four terrestrial channels, with scheduled catchphrase comedy shows that I would absorb and then bellow the catchphrases in school the next morning and then at the office. There are plenty of ageing comedy geeks like us out there and I assure you that we have bored colleagues almost to the point of physical violence by repeatedly going through routines from Blackadder, Fast Show, Red Dwarf and dozens of other classic shows. I think that cheap streaming services and multichannel sets have killed this variant of the comedy geek forever (although Ricky Gervais satirised it very well in the character of David Brent, a sitcom star who annoys his colleagues by bellowing ancient sitcom lines at every opportunity).

Michael Gove, when he was Education Secretary, had a go at the last series because he said it gives a too pessimistic view of World War One: ‘The conflict has, for many, been seen through the fictional prism of dramas such as Oh! What a Lovely War, The Monocled Mutineer and Blackadder, as a misbegotten shambles – a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite.’ I’ve never studied the Great War at all, so I can’t comment on the slanders perpetuated – so Gove says – on the reputation of Field-Marshal Haig: although I have read enough history to know that the Blackadder view of the nineteenth century imperial wars was a bit simplistic, to put it kindly. (And Blackadder took a shot at the great pacifist war poets, too: ‘War’s an horrid thing/So I sing sing sing/Ding-a-ling-a-ling…’)

It also seems to have been popular with actual soldiers, as well. Richard Holmes, in Dusty Warriors, his book about the Iraq war, includes an account of the show’s impact on military humour:

With Y Company being older, longer serving and therefore the most cynical, part of the battle group humour was particularly fatalistic. The natural choice obviously is Blackadder, of particular significance as the soldier sees himself hard done by by the sardonic Blackadder. His less than proficient peers are the witless Baldrick, and the dash and doubtful-do of Lt George is perfect for ridiculing the commissioned officers. The main protagonists of this were Cpl Chris Mulrine and Sergeant Clint Eastwood (fire controller turned water engineer). Chris would slope around crying ‘Deny everything, Baldrick’ or ‘Don’t forget your stick, Lieutenant’ at the most inopportune moments, and on special occasions (usually on the eve of one of the big ops) he could be found muttering to himself ‘Fine body of men… about to become fine bodies of men’ and ‘Ice cream in Berlin in fifteen days, or ice cold in No Man’s Land in fifteen seconds.’ His timing and application of quotes were carried out with understated style and panache.

We have wandered a little way off the trail. It is not in the scope of a half-hour show to give every nuance and shade of a complex international conflict. What the show does do, very well, is bring history home. I remember watching ‘Goodbyeeeee’ with my family, when it first aired. It took us completely by surprise, the first three series were historical romps with silly endings – and now, the fire, the smoke, and then, the field of roses. Blackadder is part of the lost kingdom of communal TV, and you don’t have to be Paul Morley or Dominic Sandbrook to realise that past that era, the show can’t possibly have the impact it once had.

I also query the premise of the potential new series. The Blackadder family has always stayed close to power and, though the politics and HR of a university no doubt provide opportunities for all sorts of cunning plans, I don’t see that the old rogue Edmund would settle for a lectureship at a college market town. Richard Curtis is quoted as saying that ‘The thing about Blackadder, it was a young man’s show criticising older people, saying how stupid those in authority were. So I did once think, ‘If we ever did anything again, it should be Blackadder as a teacher in a university, about how much we hate young people.’ It would be a shame to see the dynasty end in six episodes of weak lashed together jokes about student protest and safe spaces.

That’s my take on it, anyway. Now, if you’ll excuse me, a lorryload of paperclips has just arrived.

Bad Guy In Your MFA

June 16, 2019

The campus novel isn’t an easy thing to write, particularly a campus crime novel, and I think only Donna Tartt, in The Secret History, has really ever pulled it off. Elif Batuman’s last book was a little too diffuse for me, John Niven’s Straight White Male is more about fame and success, although I can recommend Julie Schumacher‘s profound epistolary comedy, Dear Committee Members. Apart from that, I don’t know why, the citadel of ideas doesn’t lend itself well at all to the literary novel, let alone genre fiction. (‘The Research Excellence Framework Murders’, anyone?) Until now. Jo Baker’s The Body Lies is a fantastic noir mystery of modern academia.

Part of her success is in the realism. A young novelist lands a job teaching creative writing at a university in North Lancs. The new start isn’t. The narrator ends up overloaded with work due to staffing gaps. Everyone in the department is rushed off their feet and close to burnout. What’s inside the academy’s gates isn’t so lustrous. Baker draws a compelling picture of higher education taken over by the HR industry and turned into yet another process driven target culture environment. If you wondered why lecturers and support staff walked out last year, The Body Lies will enlighten you.

Baker’s skill extends to her deft pen-portraits of the students, even gives you a sense of their work as individuals. There are the careerists and the hobbyists and the half-crazy (‘Around forty per cent of our creative writing students have declared mental health issues, and those are just the ones that choose to let us know’, an admin officer says) there’s glimpses of wonder and talent.

Here Baker digs out another level to her story. Her student Steven is writing a police procedural that begins with the discovery of a dead woman – ‘Posters of her smiling face were on every parish notice board and stuck in every shop window’ – and another student objects. Nicholas is a more experimental writer and complains that ‘I don’t know this woman. She could be anybody. Literally, Any Body. Sure, Girl Guides and yeah whatever the background bullshit we’re given, but she has no agency, she’s not a character, she’s a device.’ Part of the complexity of this book is that Baker uses exactly the same thing in her brief prologue – ‘the young woman curled there, her skin blue-white, dark hair tumbled over her face.’

Nicholas says what many readers think about police procedurals – why do we never get a chance to know the victims before they die? But his own writing isn’t much better, a plotless rush of self absorbed non sequiturs. Nicholas – never Nick – is recovering from a bereavement, comes from a dysfunctional family and seems vulnerable. He is admired and well liked. Is he just another lost soul who thinks creative writing will fix whatever is wrong with him? Or is there something creepier there? Our narrator fears the latter – particularly when she starts turning up in his excerpts. ‘I’ll only write what happened,’ Nicholas says in class. ‘I’ll only write the truth.’

The atmospherics of this novel are something else. The narrator’s problems don’t end at work. She has a marriage that’s falling apart, a young son to take care of and she fled London following a nasty street assault. I’ve not named her as I think the late reveal of her name is significant, but the protagonist is so sympathetic, you have never wanted so much for things to work out for someone. You feel the paradox of being busy and surrounded by people and still lonely, and as the story darkens, feel her sense of danger and being watched: the enemy seems to inhabit the sky. And Baker has the compulsive readability of Fiona Barton or Sarah Pinborough or Robert Galbraith.

It’s also one hell of a book about narration itself. I forget who said that ‘The villain never thinks of himself as the villain, he thinks of himself as the hero of another movie’ but it remains true. There are potential friends in the protagonist’s new Lancashire town. But there are no heroes in The Body Lies because the narrator has to learn to be her own hero and write her own story – all the men in her life have an agenda of some kind, and consider her potential grist to feed their own personal narratives. The problem of entitlement shades into the process of creation.

The protagonist reflects on Nicholas’s ‘innocent arrogance; he was shooting for immortal transcendence, with no idea of how difficult it is to achieve even mediocrity.’ I don’t know if Jo Baker will be immortal, but in The Body Lies she has shot a long way past the mediocre.

Wellness Among the Ruins

June 11, 2019

Looking at the papers in the cafe this morning, my roving satirical eye caught this piece by Dan Button, of the New Economics Foundation, in which he argues that the government should prioritise well being over GDP.

Yet last week, New Zealand broke new ground by eschewing GDP in favour of wellbeing as a guiding indicator when setting budgets and assessing government policy. Bids to the Treasury for money from now on will not only need a cost-benefit analysis, but an assessment of their wellbeing impact. Decisions about spending will be made on the basis of a project’s contribution to the wellbeing of the population, measured through four dimensions: human capital; social capital; natural capital; and financial and physical capital. It follows the Welsh government’s innovative Well-being of Future Generations Act, which places a legal requirement on public bodies in Wales to think about the long-term social, cultural, environmental and economic wellbeing impact of their decisions.

These are radical steps in the right direction that the UK should learn from by adopting a broader range of indicators when deciding how to spend money. Government departments should have a legal duty to routinely assess new policy for its impact on a broader range of criteria, including wellbeing. If improving quality of life is not the point of government policy, then what is?

The concept of wellbeing seems a bit overused and dated at the moment. It brings to mind Gwyneth Paltrow and her alt health company GOOP, which apparently advises women, in the pursuit of wellness and sexual health, to insert jade eggs into an intimate orifice. I am sure this is not what Dan Button means when he says that ‘departments should have a legal duty to routinely assess new policy for its impact on a broader range of criteria, including wellbeing.’ But even in the more prosaic political sphere, we’ve been here before.

In late 2010 prime minister David Cameron wanted to ‘make happiness the new GDP.’ This is how the Guardian reported it at the time:

He is sticking to a policy commitment he made before the economic crash when growth figures were still rosy. He said: ‘It’s time we admitted that there’s more to life than money and it’s time we focused not just on GDP but on GWB – general wellbeing.’

Speaking at the Google Zeitgeist Europe conference, he added: ‘Wellbeing can’t be measured by money or traded in markets. It’s about the beauty of our surroundings, the quality of our culture and, above all, the strength of our relationships. Improving our society’s sense of wellbeing is, I believe, the central political challenge of our times.’

We know the rest of this story – as Button says, ‘most of the population saw their living standards stagnate or fall, and austerity measures picked up pace.’ But Button goes on to claim that: ‘An economy with wellbeing at its heart would make it much harder to make such claims, and harder to enforce a policy such as austerity again.’

This seems unlikely. A focus on general wellbeing is usually a excuse for failures on real economics. In 2016 the Leave campaign and numerous Brexit commentators told us that leaving the EU would mean exciting new trade deals and money for the NHS. Now, with industry walking away and no signs of austerity letting up, these same commentators tell us to forget about the numbers, the point of the project is about restoring national pride and intangible British values. (Boring old Remainers, banging on about people’s jobs!)

Of course British values are real, and important. My argument is only that in quitting the antibiotics of GDP we could end up having to insert into ourselves the jade eggs of national sovereignty.

What is wellbeing? Button makes many good points but can’t seem to define it, and for a good reason, because wellbeing is subjective. It would be a hell of a thing for the state to decide what constitutes wellbeing and happiness, particularly as we British have become rather judgemental about how others enjoy themselves. We drink too much, smoke too much, watch reality TV. The difficulty is that government isn’t set up to foster subjective human emotions, it can only provide the resources, time and space for people to foster wellbeing in themselves and their communities and pursue their own happiness.

I’m reminded of Rachel Clarke‘s medical memoir Your Life in My Hands. Though I don’t have my copy to hand, one passage stayed with me. Dr Clarke wrote about working impossible shifts in UK hospitals and every now and again being sent internal mail offering yoga sessions and other wellness activities that the doctors could enjoy during lunch breaks.

We work through lunch break, said Clarke. We don’t have time for this.

Meanwhile, workloads soared and clinicians regularly burned out from stress. Next to nothing was done.

For all Dan Button’s good intentions, I suspect that any attempt to incorporate ‘wellness’ into the heart of British government would end in some scaled-up version of the pointless mailshots Dr Clarke describes, while the rest of the country firefights. It’s about time the state quit its emotionalist thinking and concentrated on keeping the lights on. To paraphrase P J O’Rourke: what we need is less wellness, more lunch.

Song of the Outpost

June 3, 2019

The classic recent TV series are Western genre shows. Breaking Bad, The Wire, Sons of Anarchy are basically Westerns. (Vince Gilligan drew on the same Sergio Leone movies as did Stephen King for his Dark Tower epic.) And the classic show that’s actually a Western isn’t a Western. Deadwood is not about Western type themes – confrontation, masculinity, pride, solitude and anger (although it is about these things too) it’s about relationships between people and how societies grow.

Take the gold in the black hills that brought everybody to Deadwood. People get killed over claims and counter claims. Fortune seekers rushed to the Dakotas in 1876, just as they rushed to California in ’49, and later to the Klondike in 1890. History is full of these periodic migrations and stampedes. They continue today. In the 2010s, people returned to the Dakotas for the oil and the fracking boom. I can’t recommend enough journalist Maya Rao’s Great American Outposts, in which she chronicles the searchers and drifters who gravitated to North Dakota for oil money driving rigs and hauling water. People from all over America rushed for black gold, many leaving behind criminal records, bad credit histories and child-support claims. Rao’s subjects are not all dissimilar to the ‘hoopleheads’ Al Swearengen used to serve in his Gem Saloon.

The gold itself is valueless. As the Patrician says in The Colour of Magic, if you gave everyone a bag of gold the result would not be that ‘we’d all be rich’. The gold would depreciate in value, because its value rests on scarcity. Smart operators like Al Swearengen and Cy Tolliver, the second wave of Deadwood settlers, they know that you can make a better living selling booze and sex to prospectors, than from spending hours in a creek panning for precious metals. It is not the metal but the perception of the metal and how perception itself can be mined for coin. In his book of the series, showrunner David Milch says that ‘Something in us that is specifically human has the capacity to endow a symbol with a special meaning.’

Swearengen is the lynchpin of the show – the camp evolves under his wary gaze from the balcony of the Gem. Al is a brutal cutthroat, and an exploiter of women, but he faces outwards and cares about the future of the camp. He takes an active part in the bewildering politics of accession and annexation that characterised the US in the 1870s. He hosts town meetings at the Gem, at which he serves cans of peaches, just as Gustavo Fring offered platters of sandwiches in sitdowns with cartel bosses he despised. (Milch writes: ‘And in the electrical force field created within that meeting, the presence of the peaches has significance as a gesture.’) With his fierce intelligence and grandiloquent, corrosive speech, Al runs rings around commissioners and politicians, dodging murder warrants and turning potential enemies.

But things are changing. Retired sheriff Seth Bullock goes back to the badge, and his duties go from cleaning up murders to sorting out the kind of petty property disputes that neighbourhood policing teams would recognise today. The lovable A. W. Merrick sets up his newspaper. Alma Garrett quits laudanum and founds a local bank. There are weddings, and funerals. Taboos are created and enforced. The brothel becomes a schoolhouse, and then a theatre. Telegraphs go up (and in the movie, railroads and telephone lines). There are elections locally, then regionally. And as the camp develops into a town, Swearengen faces more formidable enemies as well as his own weakness and mortality.

Milch also writes of ‘complicated manipulations and distortions of money produced by people who understood there were realities at the level of the symbol that you could fuck with.’ In season two geologist Francis Wolcott arrives and begins spreading rumours, depreciating the value of the claims so that he can buy up the claims at cost price on behalf of his employer: gold tycoon George Hearst, the boy the earth spoke to. There is a fine scene where Wolcott writes to Hearst about the growing operation, and his narration of the letter is spoken over a montage of workers driven hard at the goldmine, then stripped and frisked for stolen metals. Wolcott is a wretch and a killer, but he is just a harbinger of his even more sinister boss. When Hearst sacks Wolcott over his murders of several sex workers, Wolcott hangs himself; without Hearst he is nothing, a weak degenerate who even old man Charlie Utter can take in a fight.

David Milch describes Hearst as ‘the monstrous abstraction of the symbol made flesh.’ Hearst tells us frequently how much he hates the camp, and is obviously happiest prospecting alone in the field. In Milch’s world that’s not meant to say anything good about his character. Hearst represents the third wave of corporatism and commodity fetishism. He kills miners who try to unionise. While Al consults, Hearst only gives orders. Elections ‘ratify my will, or I neuter them,’ he says. Season three becomes a lengthy Mexican standoff between Hearst and the rest of the town. Deadwood’s resistance fears attacking him because to do so might destroy the camp. As Al says: ‘And as to us and him, if blood’s what it finally comes to, one hundred years from now the forest is what they’ll find here. Dewy morning’s lost its appeal for me. I prefer to wake indoors.’

Wake indoors, and face outwards. Milch has said in interviews that a lot of the thinking on Deadwood came from his time in AA where survival meant giving up the I for the we, and in going through the motions until they became natural. That becomes the show’s story – a lie, or illusion, agreed upon. People have to compromise their personal selves to get along, and the we isn’t always kind. Seth Bullock is in an arranged marriage to his late brother’s wife: he begins an affair with Alma Garrett, a New Yorker widowed between the murder of her husband Brom Garrett and her later platonic marriage to the noble old prospector William Ellsworth. She and Bullock are soulmates, but must sacrifice their love to the greater stability of the town. Alma says of Ellsworth, in one of the show’s more heartbreaking lines: ‘He is a good man. And he whom I love is here as well.’

It’s about the making of a community, and not the nostalgia authoritarian state of which today’s communitarians dream. It’s a we made up of hundreds, thousands of dancing Is, hoopleheads, prospectors and fools. When Bullock first stands for election, he is overwhelmed by the hustings and forgets whatever rhetoric of justice he had planned and instead simply says: ‘I’m glad we’re in the camp, even on the sorriest of days.’ And I think, watching the show and the movie, that this is how we all felt – it was over too soon, but all the same, we were glad to be in the camp. The Deadwood movie is as good as the series and gives us one last look at the legendary outpost, I recommend watching it with a bottle of rotgut to hand – and perhaps a can of peaches.

Tomorrow Belongs To Me

May 19, 2019

A couple of new things, on a similar theme: first off is a new story called ‘Tomorrow Belongs To Me’ published today by fascinating new online journal Clover & White. I’ve also written about Philip Kerr (no longer with us, o discordia) and his last novel Metropolis, at Shiny – and if you haven’t read any of his Bernie Gunther books, don’t worry, Metropolis is a good one to start off with, and you have a lot of fine reading in front of you. Enjoy!

The Vast and Wicked Stage

May 14, 2019

An instance into Nicole Flattery’s first and title story, ‘Show Them A Good Time’ you realise she has a prose that is becoming a type. The narrator has moved back to her parents’ house after years in the big city. She gets a job in some kind of millennial work farm based at a motorway service. The job is dull and cruel, but the narrator doesn’t respond to the dullness or the cruelty. But she doesn’t miss the city either. ‘I said that I had to leave to discover things about myself. Just ordinary surface and, beneath that, more desperate surface.’

Think about the short fiction of Joanna Walsh, the narrator of Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, the insouciance of Ann-Marie from Zoe Pilger’s Eat My Heart Out, even the later passages from American Psycho where Bateman goes crazy and just wanders around Manhattan listing various 1980s reference points in his mind. There is a certain listlessness to it, what the cliche calls ennui, like the suburban 1990s novels of Nigel Williams – a prose that has given up on life.

I am currently reading a sociology book about machine gambling. The sociologist interviewed a problem gambler who drew a map of her world – the casino where she worked, the free clinic where she picked up her meds, the place she slept, and at the centre is a self portrait of a woman gazing into a slot machine. This is a good approximation of where Flattery’s characters are. Angela in ‘Not the End Yet’ goes to the same falling-apart restaurant night afte night, bringing a more ridiculous and sleazy date each time. Natasha in ‘Abortion: A Love Story’ goes to an elite college and knows that it will only lead to the ‘unemployment building’. Lost in the machine zone.

Not quite though. For all Flattery’s desire to throw a crazy or disgusting visual image in your face (‘It was as if the chairs could sense the unreasonable expectations being placed upon them; they vomited their stuffing, revealed dangerous wooden splinters, and discoloured horribly in the daylight’) or to jar you with her appositions, and the performative despair she puts her characters through, there is something here that makes the giddy sense of very good experimental theatre. The story ‘Track’ is a big highlight, one woman’s struggle through a relationship with a narcissistic comedian, the ‘king of a small and ineffectual country’. The track in question is a recorded studio laughter tape, which the boyfriend carries for reassurance wherever he goes.

That is the strength of ‘Abortion: A Love Story’. Two students are having an affair with a professor, they meet by chance, both dump the professor and they write, and perform, the title play. More than playfulness, this long story is a marvellous comedy of female friendship and representation. Flattery soars when she lets her characters surface onto the vast and wicked stage – the epigram to this collection, from Lorrie Moore. ‘Only someone so gifted would do so little to announce themselves,’ the narrator muses in ‘Track’. It seems a good summation of this collection as well.

A Devil’s Bargain

May 5, 2019

Today Nick Cohen asks a good question: how does the useless Jeremy Corbyn still manage to maintain loyalty and followers?

What kind of leader produces such unthinking loyalty from his followers and, more pertinently, what damage does he inflict on the souls of followers prepared to give it?

Jeremy Corbyn is not particularly interesting. Labour officials tell me that the key to understanding him is to grasp his intellectual inferiority complex, which resulted in him turning to political dogmatism as others with his disadvantages turn to Scientology. The socialist dogmas of the 1970s gave his limited mind certainty and freedom from responsibility, and a set of enduring precepts.

There had always been a strain on the British far left that opposed European co-operation because ‘capitalist’ Europe threatened to rival the Soviet Union, the 20th-century object of their utopian fantasies. Corbyn had a ready-made anti-European policy right there. Starting with the Stalinist purges of Soviet Jews in the early 1950s, and extending to the wider left after the Israeli-Arab war of 1967, the notion that leftwing antisemitism didn’t exist surrounded him. In this milieu, it was natural to ally with the goosestepping Shia fascists of Hezbollah, and wild-eyed creeps who babbled about how the Jews caused 9/11; natural, too, to use the racist sneers of his class and generation to tell British Jews in his audience they did not understand ‘English irony’. And… well, I could go on, as you surely know.

I think the answer to Nick’s question is a kind of devil’s bargain.

David Hirsh in Contemporary Left Antisemitism argues that there are two traditions to the left. There is the democratic left which gave us the vote, trade unions and the minimum wage. Then there is the totalitarian left – which is as different from the democratic left as darkness from noon. From it, came gulags and show trials and ideology and blood.

It’s been obvious since he won the Labour leadership that Corbyn is from this second totalitarian tradition of the left. People aren’t stupid, they sense the intellectual darkness around Corbynism, they don’t particularly like it but many have been willing to accept it anyway, as ‘part of the package’.

Why? Because Corbyn also talked about the injustices faced by ordinary people struggling against the austerity of the last nine years. If you’re a lone parent of three in a falling-down private rental, or an unemployed 58 year old living on foodbanks and Universal Credit, his message is going to resonate. There are people out there hoping for a socialist Labour government to save them. They are only just hanging on, and they are the people who are going to be let down most of all.

The 2017 election intensified this because Labour surpassed very bad expectations. Since then the narrative has been ‘one last push’. It has been ‘we are so close to power, Jeremy’s enemies are panicking’.

‘Therfor bihoveth him a ful long spoon/That shal ete with a feend,’ said Geoffrey Chaucer. Medieval literature isn’t my field but what I think Chaucer is saying here is: when you deal with the devil, keep your eyes open, because he’s like to fuck you over. And so it is proving.

In What’s the Matter with Kansas? Thomas Frank explored the attraction that Republicanism had for working class Americans. He looked at the disconnect between what Republican voters wanted and what they were actually getting. ‘Vote to stop abortion: receive a rollback in capital gains taxes… Vote to get government off our backs; receive conglomeration and monopoly everywhere from media to meat packing. Vote to strike a blow against elitism, receive a social order in which wealth is more concentrated than ever before in our lifetimes.’

You could tabulate a similar vote/receive for Corbynism, based on what it’s likely to look like in power. Vote for meaningful work and a strong welfare state; receive Brexit on WTO terms and an economy in freefall. Vote to end homelessness and reform the housing market; receive international alliances with authoritarian states. Vote for solidarity with migrants and asylum seekers; receive tolerance of anti-semitism and an end of freedom of movement.

Corbyn’s team have relied upon people not realising that if they are not credible on issues like Brexit and antisemitism they are not likely to be credible on fixing the economy and social justice either.

There are signs, however, that the credibility gap is beginning to close, and that people are catching up.

Labour lost 79 seats in local elections this week. I had very far left people in my timeline, previously loyal to JC but who couldn’t vote Labour this time around because they were so disillusioned with him. Corbyn spent the day of the People’s Vote march campaigning in Morecambe. It went independent.

It has been a long time since 2017.

As I said, I can understand why people living in the hell of poverty might want to overlook Corbyn’s baggage.

But what about the more established supporters of JC – the Guardian and Jacobin columnists, the pundits, journalists and outriders?

What’s their excuse?

If You Liked Neoliberalism, You’ll Love Nativism

April 27, 2019

I have finally got around to having a look at the Hansard Society survey that came out a few weeks ago. The audit caused something of a stir because it concluded that the public were sick of parliamentary democracy and wanted an authoritarian strongman to take over. As the Guardian reported:

The UK public is increasingly disenchanted with MPs and government and ever more willing to welcome the idea of authoritarian leaders who would ignore parliament, a long-running survey of attitudes to politics has shown.

Amid the Brexit chaos, overall public faith in the political system has reached a nadir not previously seen in the 16-year history of the Hansard Society’s audit of political engagement, lower even than at the depths of the crisis over MPs’ expenses.

Almost three-quarters of those asked said the system of governance needed significant improvement, and other attitudes emerged that ‘challenge core tenets of our democracy’, the audit’s authors stated.

The study, compiled annually by the democracy charity, found that when people were asked whether ‘Britain needs a strong ruler willing to break the rules’, 54% agreed and only 23% said no.

The report itself isn’t as striking as the Guardian makes out. There are key phrases that jump out at you – ‘People are pessimistic about the country’s problems and their possible solution, with sizeable numbers willing to entertain radical political changes’, ‘42% think it would be better if the government didn’t have to worry so much about parliamentary votes when tackling the country’s problems’ – but Hansard doesn’t seem to drill down as much as I’d like. I would like to have seen quotes from participants in their own words. What kind of radical changes? How has the country declined compared to say thirty years ago? The report does not say. It’s all a bit vague.

I am reminded of Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land. Hochschild is a Berkeley sociologist, the epitome of American liberalism. In 1964 she took part in the freedom rides where students travelled to Mississippi to help black southerners register to vote. Her book is about the time she spent with working class voters in rural Louisiana. Many were disillusioned with politics as usual and most planned to vote Trump in the 2016 election. Some of Hochschild’s subjects were enthusiastic, others viewed Trump as a lesser of two evils. The main sentiment in Lake Charles was anti government. Taxes were too high. The state should get off our backs. The Louisianans worked hard and lived in very close communities. If you lost your job or fell ill, it was okay to claim unemployment for a while; otherwise, your family and the local church would help out.

Hochschild asked a small businessman named Mike Schaff: ‘What has the federal government done that you feel grateful for?’

‘Hurricane relief.’ He pauses again.

‘The I-10…’ (a federally funded freeway). Another long pause.

‘Okay, unemployment insurance.’ He had once been briefly on it.

I suggest the Food and Drug Administration inspectors who check the safety of our food.

‘Yeah, that too.’

‘What about the post office that delivered the parts of that Zenith 701 you assembled and flew over Bayou Corn Sinkhole to take a video you put on YouTube?’

‘That came through FedEx.’

Hochschild’s book is a testament to the beautiful state of Louisiana and the warmth and kindness of its people. (It’s a quirk of human nature that small-town conservatives often display more compassion and solidarity than virtue signalling liberals.) Much of the story is animated by the various big corporate pollution scandals in local rivers and bayous. Debates rage over kitchen tables over how to clean the lakes. Strangers in Their Own Land is a masterwork of imaginative empathy, by someone who respects people enough to challenge them, and pick at their contradictions.

But my point really is that this kind of self sufficient libertarianism doesn’t exist in this country. Hansard’s focus groups likely had similar complaints to Mike Schaff, Sharon Galicia, Danny McCorquodale and Hochschild’s other friends in Lake Charles. But the British don’t want ‘government off their backs’. They voted for Brexit because they thought there would be more money for the NHS. Tories learned to win elections again through giveaways like Help to Buy. Britons tend to demand state-based solutions, and that raises the stakes so much higher.

My parents’ generation came of age in the postwar settlement when it was agreed that the state would provide. They had the NHS, a generous welfare system, free college education, a raft of entitlements and privileges. I do not envy them and I’m sure they struggled. My generation has more personal liberty and technological advances. British sociology from then to now has essentially been about people adapting from a welfare state communitarian society to a more neoliberal society with free information and entertainment.

It’s something I first noticed in the early 2010s when austerity hit. People had grown up with the assumption that the state will look after them and they find out the hard way that it doesn’t. The public want more council houses, more mortgage subsidies, more GP appointments, more roadworks, more post offices, more childcare, more benefits, more hospitals, more schools, more border guards, more cops, more jails. After all, the authoritarian strongman, the Trumps, the Putins, the Orbáns, they are nothing without the state apparatus of soldiers, police, spies and lawyers in stretching battalions behind them. And yes, these kind of demands tend to come from Britons of a certain age, too young for the war but old enough for the peace dividend (although again, the Hansard Society is maddeningly vague on this).

But there is a danger in wishing more powers for the state. We don’t really get this in the UK because we never lived under a dictatorship. We never lived in the godforsaken parts of twentieth century Europe where you had to bribe three separate border authorities to get a day pass to leave your village. The idea of losing the right to live and work in 27 countries didn’t impact on the Brexit debate. It didn’t feel like a loss.

That’s why people are casual about the idea of expanding state powers. Another frequent demand I noticed in the austerity years was that the state should crack down on one particular group, or take entitlements from another particular group. We are too casual about letting the state intervene in other people’s lives, and like I say, it raises the stakes. It could be that this is the end of the neoliberal age and my generation are going to find out what authoritarianism is. Housing benefit, predator drones – they come from the same place.

Research pollster Matthew Goodwin says all this is alarmist. He writes: ‘When prominent Remainers compare Eurosceptics to Nazis, or modern-day Britain to the Weimar Republic, they are engaging in something that has defined much of our post-referendum debate: liberal ‘catastrophising’ – a cognitive distortion leading them to expect, and become obsessed by, the worst of all possible outcomes.’ I hope he is right – but it’s no comfort to say that we’re not headed to a contemporary Third Reich. A variant on Erdoğan’s Turkey or Law and Justice Poland would be grim enough. A country doesn’t have to go too far into fascism to shatter lives, or make changes that can’t be taken back.

I think politicians and activists of all kinds should be very careful what they wish for.