Deal Orr No Deal

September 11, 2016

Deborah Orr’s column yesterday has got a bit of a slagging. Which is to an extent unfair, because she comes up with an original angle on a complex problem: are zero hours contracts really a universal bad thing?

Orr makes a number of points that normally I’d be sympathetic with. I agree that the economy is changing, and the ‘job for life’ ain’t guaranteed any more. I agree that the left tends to regard pre-Thatcher employment as a lost kingdom, and ignores the difficult, repetitive and hazardous nature of manual careers. I agree that the grind of full time work is not for everyone. And the rebel in me still regards the prospect of decades in the same workplace with a kind of horror.

Orr balances the boring old unionist jobs for life culture, with sunny assertions on the happy go lucky world of the gig economy: ‘it’s also true that many people like being their own boss, and just don’t recognise the binary struggle between bosses and workers as relevant to their lives. They like being both.’ Zero hours contracts ‘are mostly taken up by women, and two thirds of people on zero-hours contracts say they don’t want more hours than they have already.’

Is there a little scripture left out of this sermon? I think there is. Here are what to my mind are the problems with zero hours jobs:

1) They are generally crap jobs. I never heard of, say, a zero hours barrister or a piecework advertising executive. But there are plenty of zero hours cab drivers, care workers and pizza deliverers. High powered professionals can get flexibility within their role at their level but the Deliveroo/Uber guys seem to have to deal with all the petty pressures and sanctions of permanent employment. If you are a zero hours worker then your phone tells you what to do.

Which brings us to:

2) Zero hours jobs are not that modern. Zero hours workers report lack of sick pay, leave entitlements, no insurance for when they get knocked over delivering takeaway food all over the city. For the FT, Sarah O’Connor went out and spoke to zero hours drivers and found them struggling under arbitrary rules and on-call systems. As a Deliveroo courier told her: ‘They are treating you like an employee, so how can they say it’s self-employment?’ Rather than writing about new ways of working, O’Connor ended up writing about Taylorism in the nineteenth century. Zero hours jobs could potentially be great flexible jobs if they were reformed, but as it actually exists at the moment the gig economy is just Taylorism with smartphones.

3) People tend to prefer secure employment. As Chris Dillow has said, most people do not have portfolio careers. Most people prefer a regular job with regular pay, particularly if you are young and have a family. That’s not everyone’s situation, but the workplace is set up that way (and it took a lot of hard work to get there) because families stand to lose the most when capitalism goes wrong.

4) Forget your tax credits. It’s also very difficult to claim in work benefits on zero hours contracts because the benefit system is set up to pay people in permanent jobs with regular pay. In a truly scary recent piece by John Harris he argues that the world of work is fragmenting so fast that more and more of us will have to be reliant on benefits in the future even if we have a working income. This would be a perfect storm and I am not convinced that Universal Credit will resolve it.

5) It tends to be a generational thing. When I started work I started out in temp jobs. You could be dumped back on the employment line at a moment’s notice (and I was). For young people coming up, with little experience, the zero hours job will be the only job available – yet another way in which the latest generation loses out in Britain.

So, as I say, I understand Orr’s point that a life in service to one employer is boring. But job security for most people is a bare minimum requirement in life and we are nowhere near being able to guarantee it.

As Gene used to say at Harry’s Place: for most people the problem with capitalism is that it’s not boring enough.

How To Fix Social Mobility Without Really Trying

August 27, 2016

bloodworthA story in the grown-up news caught my eye recently. Longitudinal research has discovered that the graduate class of 2004 – my year, more or less – failed to prosper a decade on, with 25% of ’04 graduates earning around £20,000. The Guardian quotes Alice Barnard, CEO of a vocational education charity:

Immediately after graduation, many graduates are either in jobs that didn’t require a degree or didn’t require the level of education they had got themselves to. They have invested not only time, energy and effort but also quite a lot of money and potentially come out the other side without the jobs they perhaps expected to get.

In other words, for all our education and qualifications we might as well have left school at sixteen, borrowed some money and started flipping houses on the property game. It appears that – O lost, and by the wind, O grieved! – my generation has achieved less than jackshit.

Michael Young invented the concept of ‘meritocracy’ in 1958. He did not mean it as a good thing. ‘I have been sadly disappointed by my 1958 book, The Rise of the Meritocracy,’ he wrote in 2001. ‘The book was a satire meant to be a warning (which needless to say has not been heeded) against what might happen to Britain’. While it was ‘good sense to appoint individual people to jobs on their merit’ the meritocracy turned ‘Because I’m Worth It’ into an ideological cudgel. ‘They can be insufferably smug… The newcomers can actually believe they have morality on their side. So assured have the elite become that there is almost no block on the rewards they arrogate to themselves.’ And the people who don’t make it – for whatever reason – are near-demonised, because under true meritocracy bad circumstances can only be the result of personal failings. ‘No underclass has ever been left as morally naked as that,’ said Young. They have been left with the poverty of expectation, which will kill you just as soon as material poverty.

Politicians today always say they are going to ‘break down privilege’ and ‘help people get on’ in meritocratic terms, and contrarywise political writers across the spectrum revive Young’s criticisms. Charles Moore points out, in a critique of the Prime Minister’s social mobility speech, that life chances are impacted by loads of things that have nothing to do with merit: ‘luck, ability, upbringing, health, inheritance, education, marriage, even looks (as in ‘Her face is her fortune’).’

Moore is right that ‘few would tolerate a Conservative government who tried to punish everybody who is rich for these reasons’ (although one might take issue with his claim that ‘It is encouraging that a man whose family first got rich because his ancestor was the fat huntsman (gros veneur) of William the Conqueror has £9 billion today, 950 years later… It gives hope to us all.’) The point is, meritocracy is far too deterministic. People do not just slot into their allotted ‘station in life’ as a result of inborn talent and personal worth. As the man said, life is short and art is long, and success is very far off.

In any case, the UK is still far too shackled by aristocracy of birth to worry about Young’s dystopia just yet. James Bloodworth is a good, muscular writer who rams home his points with a welter of stats and figures. Only a small percentage of UK citizens are privately educated but they dominate the judiciary, journalism, television, politics,  medicine, drama, showbusiness and the music industry. Cliché as this is, it appears that ‘who you know’ is a big thing on our small island. ‘Put more straightforwardly,’ Bloodworth writes, ‘if you live in London and have friends in high-powered jobs, you are far more likely to get an ‘in’ with someone influential in your desired profession than someone who lives a long way from the capital and who lacks the same contacts.’ The interesting and rewarding stuff relies on networks and unpaid internships which are difficult or impossible to get into. ‘Politicians are thus chasing a mirage,’ Bloodworth writes.

When Bloodworth’s book came out some reviewers complained that he offered no potential solutions. It’s understandable as ‘social mobility’ contains a multitude. When does personal drive end and environmental impacts begin? What does and doesn’t impact a life, and what if anything can the state do to mitigate these impacts?

Nevertheless, let me now try to put the world to rights, and offer some potential very simplified solutions to the complex issue.

  • There is no reason for everything to be concentrated in London. The skew towards our capital is destroying it, aggravating the property market and making the city unliveable. Power should be devolved to the regions where possible and media outlets/publishers/TV stations should open offices there. The Northern Powerhouse is a political thing. Let’s make it a real thing.
  • We need more capitalism. Too many areas have only a few public sector bodies or monopoly private employers to apply to. This keeps wages low and prevents bad practice from being challenged. We could set up some kind of commission to break regional monopolies. We should cap business rates for smaller companies and give grants to any small entrepreneur with a reasonable business plan.
  • Make localism pay. We should reform local democracy so that elected reps are paid the national average and that working age people can get involved in their communities. This would also provide a route into politics for bright people outside political networks.
  • Bright people who want to go to college should be allowed in. Whether you want to become a cardiologist or just spend three years reading books, the experience of university breaks down poverty of expectations and makes people realise that other things in life are possibles. And this can only be a good thing.
  • Vocational stuff needs to really be vocational. I’m all for vocational education but too often the state seems to use it to tie up working class people on meaningless NVQ or BTECs because it can’t think what else to do with them. Vocational education is great but it needs to teach skills. And that had better be clear and marketable skills.
  • Bring on welfare reform. Job Centres and the welfare reform industry has function-bloated right out of control. Rather than helping people find work, they act as enforcement arms for the state. If the current system can’t finance vocational training for jobseekers or get them into decent jobs rather than just off benefits then it should be closed down and replaced with some sort of base income.
  • Let’s be nice. Our economy has been troubled for a while and it will get more so, many people are out of work through no fault of their own. Others find it very difficult to work due to physical and mental health problems. Try to be compassionate. Poverty can happen to anyone. It can happen to you.

And if you really do want to get on in life then the last thing you should do is listen to a politician.

You Ain’t No Nice Guy

August 21, 2016

Character matters in politics. The troubled Blair-Brown relationship had a huge impact on the Labour Party and the country. The Dave-Boris Eton rivalry made history in a way neither man expected.

You can play the counterfactual game forever. If Parnell had been more faithful (or at least more discreet) the Ireland Troubles and so many deaths could have been avoided. If Edward VIII hadn’t abdicated for love, Nazis might rule the world. And so on.

Jeremy Corbyn is a nice guy. A real prince. That is, until you ask him a question he doesn’t want to answer, or tell him something he doesn’t want to hear. You can see the change, in tone and demeanour, in his interview with Krishnan Guru-Murphy, and in the Vice documentary (particularly around 23 minutes in when he is questioned about Ken Livingstone’s unfortunate Hitler remarks). A light goes out of his eyes, and there is a sense that the mask has slipped.

Lots of Jeremy Corbyn supporters are nice people. I meet many. It seems that the worse Corbyn does in Westminster, the more people go to his rallies. Political analysts fall over themselves trying to explain Jeremy’s peculiar magnetism. I think Helen Lewis gets it right. People really do want a kinder gentler politics. People are sick of authoritarianism and inequality. There are good, smart, brave, struggling, creative people who are backing him. It’s to them that I’m speaking because I don’t want these people to be lost to politics forever.

Problem is, Jeremy Corbyn is not a nice guy.

I can prove it, and it’s easy to prove, because he’s a public figure, and so much is on record.

Nice guys do not invite Islamist fanatics into Parliament, claim they do this to ‘promote dialogue’ – and then ignore approaches from Israeli socialists.

Nice guys don’t take money from oppressive regimes, nor appear on their propaganda channels.

Nice guys don’t stand by while colleagues are anti-semitically abused, at the launch of an inquiry into anti-Semitic abuse, and particularly then don’t exchange friendly words with the abuser. And a nicer leader would have thought again about offering the inquiry chair a peerage, after the inquiry more or less declared a clean bill of health.

Nice guys don’t take their staff for granted, blank team members who ask hard questions, or leave people to sink or swim. Nice guys don’t appoint, then fire people without knowledge or consent, particularly not if they are being treated for cancer at the time.

Nice guys don’t use the shocking death of a colleague, as rhetorical weapon to inhibit dissent.

Nice guys don’t preside over a culture of threats, bullying and intimidation, and when challenged, simply tell people to ‘ignore it’.

This last point bears expanding.

‘Ignore it’ is good advice if a drunk shouts abuse at you in the street.

If you’re the leader of a political party, that is an increasingly toxic environment, particularly for women and Jewish people, then you shouldn’t ignore it. You should put a stop to it.

For all the talk of entryism, I suspect a lot of the aggro comes from hardcore and longterm CLP members, as much as the ‘£3 supporters’. What is amazing is that people treat this ugly discourse as if it has nothing to do with Jeremy. It’s like the joke Communist, hearing of some new corruption or atrocity, who complains: ‘What a disgrace – if only Comrade Stalin knew about this!’

Check out this piece. The victim blaming, the pettiness, the condescension. And that’s the tip of the iceberg. This is why good, serious people don’t want anything to do with Jeremy or his team.

I have respect and sympathy for women in the Labour Party struggling to change things. Many of them would make fine leaders of the opposition. Right now, they’d have more chance of landing on the moon.

Such problems are not unique to Labour or the left of course. My point is that politics has got appreciably nastier in my lifetime. And I think Jeremy has been one of the people making that happen.

Jeremy will probably win the leadership. He might even win a general election. But he doesn’t deserve to.

Darkness Physical: Dan Vyleta’s ‘Smoke’

August 4, 2016

danvyletaThere’s a moment in classic 1990s novel Bridget Jones’s Diary where Fielding’s heroine, appalled by the state of the segregated smoking carriage on a train journey, vents in her journal: ‘Would not have been in least surprised if carriage had mysteriously been shunted off into siding never to be seen again. Maybe privatised rail firms will start running Smoking Trains and villagers will shake their fists and throw stones at them as they pass, terrifying their children with tales of fire-breathing freaks within.’

Bridget strikes a chord, not just on the identification of smoke with sin (even the harmless electronic cigarette is frowned upon in some public health circles) but the imagery of it – people of ash riding a doomed train. It’s an image that comes to mind on reading Smoke, Dan Vyleta’s fantasy thriller where sin is all too visible. In Vyleta’s England (it’s set in the nineteenth century, although could be later because the authorities in Vyleta’s England suppress new technology and the world beyond its borders) any dark thoughts or impulses cause actual smoke to rise from the person’s skin.

In boarding school, where we begin the story, the environment is carefully regimented so that barely anyone ever emits the sin-smoke at all: later, the boys visit London, a city almost caved in by the weight of its own smoke and soot. Vyleta’s young protagonists get caught between the Tory and Whiggish wings of the authorities, each trying to carve its own path to the Republic of Virtue: there’s also a working class rebel movement that works in underground mines so that the smoke coming off the conspirators is less obvious.

It’s all beautifully written but Vyleta’s concept isn’t as original as he thinks: the idea of someone’s inner life taking physical form is as old as sin itself – think of the dæmons of Northern Lights, or Patrick Ness’s Noise. Still, there’s loads of fascinating angles on poverty, prejudice and class, and reflections on the puzzle of sin in a secular world – why hidden thoughts and motivations still seem more important than actual demonstrable actions. (Politics these days seems near written in the language of faith.) As the sailor says in Vyleta’s absorbing novel: ‘This is Britain, though. Here crookery has had a haircut, and its shirt cuffs are freshly ironed.’

Jumping the Train

August 3, 2016

Sarah has directed me to Anthony Clavane’s piece on Yorkshire and the EU, which is a rather confusing counsel of despair. He offers the standard sociological explanations for the out vote – decline of manufacturing, loss of community, fishing quotas etc – and places odd emphasis on 1960s/1970s cultural referents: Barry Hines’s novel A Kestrel for a Knave plus gritty classic Billy Liar. Clavane quotes poet Ian McMillan: ‘Kes is our creation myth. It’s our Moby-Dick, our Great Expectations. Billy Casper’s story reminds us that we are worth writing about. Here is our little town presented as a place where epic things can happen.’ I’ve never seen Billy Liar, but Clavane writes about the scene where ‘the Yorkshire anti-hero, played by a very young Tom Courtenay, jumps off the train before it sets off for the Big Smoke. He bottles it, turning down the chance of joining Liz – Julie Christie! – in the swinging capital. Liz slumps into her seat, clearly baffled. As with Kes, I have watched this movie many times and have always ended up screaming at Courtenay to stay on the train.’

Clavane sees in this scene the northman’s ‘penchant for self-sabotage’ and extrapolates this to the 2016 vote: ‘After virtually disappearing as an economic force, as a result of de-industrialisation, Margaret Thatcher’s scorched earth policy and a post-crash squeeze on incomes, [Yorkshire] has now voted to remain invisible. This baffles me.’

Let me try and help him out. For a start, Clavane gives the impression that Yorkshire voted leave, end of story, but I think it’s a little more nuanced than that: Leeds, Harrogate and York all backed remain, and places that voted out did so by narrow margins. If the vote had become a referendum on the open society, there were millions ready to defend it.

There’s little such positivity in Clavane’s piece. He talks about the Danny Boyle 2012 Olympic movie, he talks about EU regen funding. All well and good. But then he’s back to moaning about the electorate: ‘Sadly, God’s Own County decided to leave the train. To leave itself behind.’ Nothing on the myriad of voting intentions individuals had for leave: they could have fallen for outright campaign lies, could have serious and principled critiques of the EU, or simply be unemployed, filled with rage and confusion, living in a crap town, and unable to believe things could possibly get worse. (It’s interesting that the places that voted leave tend to be those where the problem is not too much capitalism and immigration but not enough: places with no jobs, nothing to do and populations that are ageing and declining.)

Clavane’s piece reeks of condescension – and more than that, it’s the condescension of nostalgia. Things were better back in the day, Clavane says: before ‘the destruction of traditional, mutually self-sustaining, communities’ which ‘almost put paid to a collectivist culture based on extended family life, warmth and neighbourliness.’ Clavane is smart enough to recognise the myth in this and that too often the reality of the lost kingdom was ‘stiflingly-claustrophobic Victorian neighbourhoods, pockmarked by overcrowding, poverty and bigotry.’ And yet, like the lost children of House Stark, Clavane still clings to the Winterfell dream, long after the castle has been sacked and burned. This is why Clavane only mentions older generation writers in his piece, and doesn’t seem to have asked any of the brilliant and innovative younger writers and publishers for their views.

The only hope is escape: and again, he complains that today’s Northern creatives just don’t have the imagination to find somewhere better. ‘Back in the socially-mobile 60s, [Billy Liar star Tom Courtenay] was in the vanguard of a post-war generation of northern working-class heroes who migrated to London – and were regarded as ambassadors of their communities.’

You can still make it in London: it’s a fantastic city albeit a hard city, and I know people who have gone down there and worked hard and made something of themselves. The impression I get though is that Clavane is good at identifying problems in Northern communities but can’t think of any answers apart from a) ask for money or b) leave town. It reminds me of the Publishing Association regional diversity project, which finds free London rooms for interns outside the capital. Again, love it, great idea, but why can’t we also make everything a little less centralised and support publishing in our own communities?

Put another way, sometimes it’s the right choice to jump the train and lose yourself in the wilderness.

We Go Around in the Night And Are Consumed by Fire

July 7, 2016

wegoaroundinthenightJules Grant’s debut is possibly the best title of the year. Well – best title of the year. It’s narrated by a lesbian drug dealer out for revenge after her best friend is gunned down in a Manchester nightclub. Gangster vengeance isn’t the most original plotline and as sometimes happens in multinarration vernacular, peoples and times sometimes merge into one another in a way that perhaps wasn’t intended.

Still, it’s such fun to read, and the detail is bang on. As Irvine Welsh’s Leith hustlers hated authority in all manifestations (‘On the issue of drugs, we wir classical liberals, vehemently opposed tae state intervention in any form) so does Grant’s protagonist Donna tells us with pride that her father never paid a penny in tax nor claimed a state benefit in his life. Donna’s crew is also way more organised than Mark Renton’s band of brothers: she changes her sim card daily, and thinks of ever ingenious ways to smuggle drugs past nightclub security (including synthesising MDMA into aerosol hairsprays and charging pillheads a fiver per blast). Her eventual escape is genuinely thrilling.

It’s refreshing to read a Manchester crime novel that’s not stuck in the Gooch-Doddington wars of the 2000s, and Grant writes with a ferocious love of the city that wins her story a place in great northern fiction. That title doesn’t make sense as related to the story – except it reads like a snatch of graffito you might see on a flyover or tunnel or highway or byway on a city evening, something you might remember.

When Two Tribes

July 6, 2016

We’re ever so nice to our pets

And we know not to work too hard

We’re inventive, accepting, eccentric, and yes

I suppose we’re a bit bizarre

– Professor Elemental, ‘I’m British’

The novelist Clare Allan has a piece in the Guardian on empathy and the EU vote. It doesn’t really go anywhere or make much sense but her para here strikes a chord:

If it’s hard in fiction to get inside another person’s point of view, it’s much harder in real life – and in politics it appears to be close to impossible. Yet, in the post-referendum turmoil when the country seems divided as never before – fractured down every conceivable line – it might be about the most essential skill we could all try to master.

In this tense and febrile summer Allan’s line rings true. It has seemed to me that we in the UK are separating into two tribes – young against old, cities against regions, class versus class, cosmopolitan versus the provincial – and the referendum has widened divisions that have been growing throughout my adult lifetime into one single, glaring fissure. Obviously we all have our opinions and allegiances and it shouldn’t matter. We’re all human, we’re all British – we’re not enemies. Everyone who follows politics has a phase of judging others by their political choices: in the ironic, Radio 4 kind of way. These days, as politics is ceded to the humourless hardcore activists, the irony casts a shadow.

I knew friends in tears and half-mad with worry over the result of Friday 24. I don’t know many Leave voters. I accept that there were good arguments for leave  – the best I think by Professor Alan Johnson, explained here on Harry’s Place – but even the best arguments are simply a list of the European Union’s failures and difficulties. It seems to me that in answer to these difficulties, and the frustrations of millions in forgotten towns, we’ve done the equivalent of what the plague did, in The Stand – unravelled the Gordian knot by simply slashing it down the middle.

And I think it matters that the official Leave campaigners did not argue their case with anything like the intelligence and rigour with which Professor Johnson argues his… particularly since the architects of these campaigns have decided for whatever reason that they don’t want to be a part of whatever comes next, and don’t want to be around when people start asking when the magic money tree is going to appear. There’s a very famous line from Gatsby that comes to mind:

They were careless people, Tom and Daisy- they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.

Still, what’s the point in tears and worry and Change.org petitions. What’s done is done, hard reality. The point now is what kind of country do we want to be? There’s talk of a second Scottish referendum, Northern devolution, even serious people proposing that London should be allowed to set itself up as a separate entity and get back into the EU. I admire the people who organised the recent public rallies against post referendum racism and to celebrate diversity. In such a nasty political climate it takes personal courage to organise and participate in a pro diversity demonstration. But I fear the idea of London as a city state unto itself is very much part of the problem.

It’s sometimes said that you’re not allowed to talk about immigration. Wrong. Immigration is all we’ve talked about in British politics since the 1980s. It’s a particular talking point for many working people struggling with crap jobs, broken cities, shitty, damp-infested housing and little say in their futures. Governments, responding to their ‘legitimate concerns’ (but only about immigration) built detention centres, passed Immigration Acts, increased deportations. It’s a war of attrition with apparently no end to it, but who knows, maybe with more deportations, more detention centres, more Immigration Acts, maybe people will stop coming. And then we will find out what it is like to live in a country that people don’t want to come to. I wonder if this will be the paradise it seems?

Maybe Europe and the UK will collapse into competing federations like the ones in George Martin’s Westeros, or in David Hutchinson’s fantastic dystopia Europe in Autumn – entertaining worlds to read about, perhaps not so entertaining to live in. Or it could be that everything will be fine. I hope so, because what I really don’t want to see is an isolated and bitter country where everyone’s first priority is to leave. We’re not the centre of the world, and perhaps a little humility on the part of our leaders is required. We are one place in a dangerous world.

I think of the closing chapters of Ian McEwan’s flawed, but thoughtful novel Saturday, where neurosurgeon Henry Perowne is looking out onto the London night after an eventful day in 2003, and thinking:

A hundred years ago, a middle-aged doctor standing at this window in his silk dressing gown, less than two hours before a winter’s dawn, might have pondered the new century’s future. February 1903. You might envy this Edwardian gent all he didn’t yet know. If he had young boys, he could lose them within a dozen years, at the Somme. And what was their body count, Hitler, Stalin, Mao? Fifty million, a hundred? If you described the hell that lay ahead, if you warned him, the good doctor – an affable product of prosperity and decades of peace – would not believe you […]

But this may be an indulgence, an idle, overblown fantasy, a night-thought about a passing disturbance that time and good sense will settle and rearrange.

Young People With Weird Ideas: Emma Cline’s The Girls

June 25, 2016

emmaclineIn his biography of Charles Manson, Texan historian Jeff Guinn has a fascinating chapter on the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco that became a giant green beacon for outsider youth across America. By 1967 the area got three hundred new arrivals a day, from across the United States: ‘more runaways than any major city could have comfortably absorbed, let alone a relatively small neighbourhood… misfit kids, the ones with no social skills who had trouble making friends or fitting in back in their hometowns, or else were at critical odds with their parents and wanted someone more understanding to take them in and tell them what to do. The ones least able to fend for themselves were the most likely to stay.’

Emma Cline’s debut novel revisits the Manson cult from the twenty first century. Cleverly, her fictional narrative of 1969’s fractured summer does not dwell on the guru. Cline’s villain Russell is a bland opportunist just as Manson was. Instead she focuses on the stories of people far more interesting than he – the young people from good homes who embrace fanatical groups, the Manson followers who stole credit cards and dumpster-dived and allowed themselves to be pimped out for him. The young who kill and die for worthless leaders. Why?

For her narrator Evie Boyd the why is easy. She comes from a wealthy, lethargic Californian family directly out of Mad Men. Her idiotic philandering father leaves, and her mother disgusts Evie by simpering over a parade of sleazy unsuitable men. Evie’s life is a constant negotiation with the male gaze, from the potential stepfather who remarks ‘Fourteen years old, huh?… Bet you have a ton of boyfriends’ to ‘the older man who would later place his hand on my dick while he drove me home.’ Evie is attracted to the cult because – paradoxically, and ironically – it’s the nearest thing she has to a community of female solidarity. ‘Though I should have known,’ she reflects, ‘that when men warn you to be careful, often they are warning you of the dark movie playing across their own brains.’

Reviewing the book, Sarah Ditum identified ‘the specific indignities of girlhood – the dehumanising demands of men, the casual violence with which those demands are enforced, the constant ‘campaign for her own existence’ that every girl will eventually be defeated in.’ The fearful exasperation all women face at some point when dealing with stares and comments and gropes for Evie Boyd turns into a rebellious rage. And there is a deeper existential sense of being lost that is part of the human condition. There is no closure to Evie’s confusion: she’s just as disorientated as an adult, and barely even perceives that this experience is universal – she watches her apparently self assured younger relative Sasha with envy, imagining that ‘there were only one way things could go, the years leading you down a corridor to the room where your inevitable self waited – embryonic, ready to be revealed. How sad it was to realise that sometimes you never got there.’ Does anyone.

In her front story Cline has fun dealing with the ideological debris of the love generation. ‘People were falling into that kind of thing all the time,’ she explains to Sasha, ‘Scientology, the Process people. Empty-chair work. Is that still a thing?’ Later, drinking in a bar, they are approached by ‘another sixties ghost’ who ‘was convinced that world events were orchestrated by complicated and persistent conspiracies. He took out a dollar bill to show us how the Illuminati communicated with each other.’ When Evie asks ‘Why would a secret society lay out their plans on common currency?’ the sixties ghost can’t give a convincing answer. A distinct feature of twenty first century discourse is the progression of crazed ideology from the internet into mainstream conversation – venomous binaries about the Rothschilds, 9/11, chemtrails and voting pencils. ‘That the world had a visible order,’ Evie says, ‘and all we had to do was look for the symbols – as if evil was a code that could be cracked.’

The fractured summer of 1969 is today treated as a cautionary tale – what can happen when young people with weird ideas get out of control. Perhaps 2016 will be a testament to the crazy ideas of the old, which played a decisive hand in everything from the housing crisis to the Lehmans crash to Brexit. Maybe I’m reading too much into Cline’s novel, but The Girls made me think of something Christopher Hitchens wrote, towards the end of his life, that ‘when I check the thermometer I find that it is the fucking old fools who get me down the worst, and the attainment of that level of idiocy can often require a lifetime.’

A Filthy City By The Lake

June 19, 2016

‘By the thousands and thousands the foreclosures came,’ George Packer writes in The Unwinding, his temperate and beautiful chronicle of downturn America. ‘They came to Country Walk and Carriage Pointe, to inner-city Tampa and outermost Pasco, to Gulfport and northeast St. Pete… They came like visitations from that laconic process server, the angel of death.’ At the courts, these foreclosures ‘were transformed into millions of pages of legal documents… the carts were wheeled into courtrooms by bailiffs who looked weary from the effort.’

Florida courts in Packer’s account dealt with approximately 120 foreclosure cases a day: ‘one senior judge, aged seventy-five or so, might carry three thousand cases at a time.’ Mostly defendants weren’t represented or even in attendance, so cases were ruled with assembly-line speed. On the occasions a defendant turned up and with an actual lawyer, the bank’s case was lost because the mortgage debt had been slashed and diced so many times it would be unclear who truly owned the property in question. (Packer has a great scene where an idealistic attorney yells at a judge: ‘All we’re asking is for them to identify who is the entity that is asking my client to give them a couple hundred thousand dollars.’) This uncertainty of debt and obligation, however, didn’t stop the process. Packer paints a scene from a mad bureaucratic fantasia.

I thought of this chapter on finishing End of Watch, the last book in Stephen King’s trilogy of novels about a ‘filthy little city residents called the Gem of the Great Lakes.’ These books are King attempting a departure or perhaps a different kind of legacy. Rather than his native Maine, the stories are set in this nameless city of the Midwest. King doesn’t love this city like he loves Maine, so he doesn’t linger. There’s a tight rattle to prose and story, and the stories are crime procedurals rather than horror. Even in the last book where King lets the supernatural take over again entirely, the story is still process and procedure – doors unlocked, small thefts and subterfuge, the unspooling of computer programmes, the operations of motor vehicles, the millions of small distinct actions that go into the commission and investigation of crime.

This filthy little city is falling apart. What might have been great once is now a tired moonscape of repossessed homes, stalled developments, fire-sale businesses and families broken by the constant struggle and arguments over day to day repayment and expense. King might have read Packer, was probably remembering his own experiences of poverty, and was perhaps thinking of Raymond Chandler also – a novelist derided as a penny-dreadful merchant in his day, but who earned retrospective respect for his social commentary. This world, like the Dark Tower’s, has moved on, but lacks Mid-World’s glammer: it’s just another one of numberless lost towns on both sides of the Atlantic, rich and bitter soil that makes it possible for a Donald Trump to exist… and thrive.

In Finders Keepers – the mid point of the trilogy and in some ways the most interesting of the books – King introduces us to a fictional novelist called John Rothstein, author of an acclaimed trilogy about American rebel Jimmy Gold. Rothstein exists for a mere dozen pages before his home is invaded by Morris Bellamy, a drifter and armed robber who fancies himself a Gold-style iconoclast. Morris resents the writer because Rothstein ended his trilogy with Jimmy Gold working in advertising and living in an Ossining-style suburb. ‘You created one of the greatest characters in American literature, then shit on him,’ Morris complains. For this crime, he blows Rothstein’s head off, steals the author’s money and notebooks, and on the way back, casually offs his two accomplices to ensure their silence. But he never gets to read the lost Rothstein manuscripts, which take the Gold story in a direction more to his liking: Jimmy burns down his ad agency and heads to California to join the hippy revolution.

King has been here before of course. He satirised the rock and roll American novelist to great effect in Desperation (and is it a coincidence that the Shooter’s Tavern, where Morris is arrested, shares a name with the forbidding lost storyteller of King’s novella ‘Secret Window, Secret Garden’?) For me Rothstein’s murder and the loss of his manuscript is King broadcasting to us, loud and clear, that the era of the frontier is over. Morris sees his transgressions as ‘an existential act of outlawry’ and doesn’t listen to his mother, who tells him ‘most of us become everyone’ nor to his business partner Andy Halliday (‘The purpose of American culture is to create a norm‘) nor to his prison buddy: ‘They fuck you in the end, buddy. Right up the ass. Rock the boat and they fuck you even harder.’ Life in the filthy city is a life sentence with no possibility of escape or parole.

So much of the filthy city novels are about sheer endurance. King gives his hero detective, Bill Hodges, a personal trilogy of horrible diseases – suicidal depression, cardiac arrest, pancreatic cancer. The victims of Mr Mercedes and his job-fair attack take years to recover from their injuries, and some never recover at all. Morris is sentenced to life for aggravated rape: his victim is traumatised by the experience. Morris himself does thirty-six years in state prison, where he’s a kind of literary jailhouse hustler. He even springs a fellow con who has been wrongly convicted – but Morris is not Andy Dufresne, he doesn’t learn the meaning of hope, there’s no Shawshank redemption here, and Finders Keepers is in some ways a bitter mockery of King’s earlier prison tale.

Morris is more like another King archetype, one of that parade of legendary losers that includes Henry Bowers, Danforth ‘Buster’ Keaton, even Mordred the spider-prince from the Dark Tower cycle. The only difference is that Morris can read and write and appreciate. ‘Books were escape. Books were freedom.’ What he’s looking for is that feeling Don DeLillo wrote about in Mao II: ‘a sense that he was not alone, that the world was a place where travellers in language could know the same things.’ Morris is a robber, a killer, a kidnapper and a rapist, but he is a mere sideshow to the trilogy’s real villain, Brady Hartsfield, aka Mr Mercedes, who lacks even that basic instinct for companionship. Thinking about 9/11, Brady reflects: ‘Off you go, killers and killed alike, off you go into the universal null set that surrounds one lonely blue planet and all its mindlessly bustling denizens. Every religion lies. Every moral precept is a delusion. Even the stars are a mirage. The truth is darkness, and the only thing that matters is making a statement before one enters it. Cutting the skin of the world and leaving a star. That’s all history is, after all: scar tissue.’

Brady is famous for his Mercedes crime – driving a car into a crowd of unemployed people queuing for a city job fair – but what he really likes is forcing people to kill themselves, which he does by supernatural means in the final book. At the end of this book Hodges thinks about the act of suicide itself: ‘how some people carelessly squander what others would sell their souls to have: a healthy, pain-free body. And why? Because they’re too blind, too emotionally scarred, or too self involved to see past the earth’s dark curve to the sunrise. Which always comes, if one continues to draw breath.’ Here King finally gives us hope – but in his filthy city stories he shows us how long that curve can be.

The Hunter-Gatherers

June 13, 2016

This story appears in the new issue of the excellent Scrittura magazine (start at page 60).