A Woke Dating Guide

September 17, 2018

This is a long story of mine published at Fearless Femme. I had been thinking for a long time about writing a caper story that was just based around friendships and happiness, and this piece is the result. It’s messy and meandering but I’m proud of it still. The editors at Fearless Femme have done a fantastic job of illustrating the story with photography that captures – probably more than my actual words – what I was trying to do. The zine itself has tons of superb new writers and artists working on a range of subjects but with a mental health focus. It’s an outstanding publication and well worth your time. And I’m appreciative that they published my story.

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This Undone England

August 4, 2018

I kind of gave up on Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time when I read this long essay by Christopher Hitchens, a fan of the conservative novelist. Hitchens had recently seen a TV adaptation of the grandee author’s twentieth century epic and found it wanting – in all respects but one:

It inserted only one incident that occurs nowhere in the work. As Jenkins watches a Socialist/Communist parade of unemployed ‘Hunger Marchers’ into Hyde Park, and notes with amused contempt the number of modish and fashionable dons and scribblers who have attached themselves to the procession, a gang of Blackshirts rushes forward with knuckle-dusters and truncheons and falls upon the subversives. It isn’t simply that the Mosley element makes no appearance at this point in Dance. It is more that the Fascist and crypto-Fascist element in upper-class British society makes no appearance at all. The only actual Blackshirt who is mentioned even en passant is the unnamed daughter of a Soho Italian restaurateur.

No disrespect to the fellow, but doesn’t that omission make it harder to take Powell’s work seriously? For a great social writer of the war and interwar years, the absence of ‘a Unity Mitford or a ‘Chips’ Channon or a Lord Halifax’ would be gaping. It’s like – even Wodehouse had Roderick Spode!

Now of course this kind of thing is historical fiction. There is a certain kind of historical novel that really sells. A country house between the wars. Gorgeous views of the fens and valleys. Families, friends, their own idiosyncrasies and secrets, a whisper of murders and infidelities.

This sort of thing sells for the same reason that crime fiction and Downton Abbey sells: we like the idea of sliding into some long, winter country night – and we like the assurance that everything turned out all right in the end. Okay, a lot of people in the BUF and the Peace Pledge Union were jolly bad eggs, but at the end of the day we did the right thing, won the war and banked our peace dividend on a liberalish society that has worked reasonably well to this day. I am thinking of D J Taylor’s The Windsor Faction – such a well realised novel that explores British sympathy for appeasement, but if you’ve read it, you’ll know that everything is resolved rather too easily. It feels rather pat.

After the Party brings a chill wind through this kind of complacent summer afternoon. True, Cressida Connolly uses many elements of the country-house novel. There are balls. There are lovely descriptions of the Sussex countryside, pre motorways and housing estates. There are married couples who sleep around.

A big departure is in the prose. After the Party clocks in at 260 pages and change – and when you consider the acute sympathy and observation of her characters, her uncanny sense of time and place, and the ton of historical research she must have got through, the fierce economy of Connolly’s book is all the more remarkable. In an age of literary maximalism it’s quite something – it doesn’t feel like a fingernail-clipping, it could be as long as Powell’s Dance and you would still polish the thing off in a day and a half.

The book begins in the late 1930s. Phyllis Forrester returns from many years living abroad with her naval commander husband. She buys a house in the country where her two sisters have already established themselves, one a high society hostess, the other a hard-headed community organiser who ropes Phyllis into the summer camps and village-hall talks. Except this isn’t just any community. This is from Phyllis’s first meeting:

Gradually the room filled. Phyllis had expected that most of the audience would be working men and was surprised to find that this was not the case, for none of the audience appeared to conform to any particular type. There was a group of young women who arrived all at once, chattering like starlings: clerks, perhaps, or shop girls. Three rather distinguished-looking women came in, two of them wearing fox-tippets despite the summery weather. With pronounced hauteur they made their way straight to the front row of seats and installed themselves, each with one ankle tucked politely behind the other, just as Phyllis and her sisters had been told a lady must always sit.

The speaker turns up. He talks passionately about the livelihood of small shopkeepers. He laments the British high street, squeezed out by retail giants. You agree with him. Fascism doesn’t come to the ball as fascism. It doesn’t come to the ball saying ‘Heil Hitler’. It comes to the ball saying ‘Straight talking, honest politics,’ or ‘Take back control’.

Seamlessly Phyllis and her friends are sucked into an authoritarian if not totalitarian enterprise. Phyllis’s daughter paints ‘PJ’ (or ‘Perish Judah’) on a community hall: it is youthful high spirits. The Leader himself, Sir Oswald, favours the community with frequent visits – more than one person comments that the Sussex village always gets fair weather when Mosley comes to town, reminding you of Unity Mitford’s impression that sitting beside Adolf Hitler was like sitting beside the sun.

Yet it somehow doesn’t feel that way. Connolly’s characters are so likeable and real that their descent into fanaticism takes the reader as much by surprise as it does Phyllis Forrester. She is a kind, smart woman who loves her family. When she is finally interned, you feel the wrench, and her solidarity with other inmates in Holloway. You feel the shame, when she is released, and the old certainties fall away from her in a drift of social shame.

It’s only decades later, when Phyllis looks back on her life, that you hear the thunder of jackboots:

I don’t regret my politics, I don’t see why I should. I think history has proved us right. Look at the state of the country, now! Endless power cuts, grave-diggers on strike so that bodies lie unburied, no one collecting the rubbish so there are rats in the streets… it’s a disgrace. People freezing to death in their own homes because the electric’s been switched off. Socialist infiltrators picketing outside our hospitals and fire stations. All these foreigners taking over our little shops and whatnot… We used to be a great nation, a great Empire, and now look at us. Sir Oswald would never have let things come to this.

But this variant of pathology always comes to this – always ends in bitterness and nostalgia. But the strength of this wonderful book is that we realise that your situation is not necessarily all you are, your ideology is not all you are, and that at some point we were better, and free, even if we didn’t realise this. Politics makes us into strange shapes. The world turns us into other people – rich and strange.

Connolly has an amazing few lines from something called the ‘General Confession’:

We have left undone those things which we ought to have done and we have done those things which we ought not to have done, and there is no health in us. There is no health in us.

Phyllis’s main regret is for her enigmatic friend Sarita. Who was that strange man she met in Paris: was she just a morphine junkie or some kind of Allied spy? Read this awesome book and decide for yourself.

Consider the Lily

June 23, 2018

There’s a classic Lee and Herring sketch featuring Jesus talking to his disciples. The Son of God, here portrayed by Stewart Lee, notices that one of his followers seems troubled. What’s the problem? I gave up my work to follow you, Matthew says, and now I can’t afford to eat or feed my family. Could Jesus advise him? After some thought, Jesus declares: ‘Consider the lilies of the field’. And? the disciple asks. Aaaaah, says Stewart Lee. ‘No, not ‘aaaah’, that doesn’t answer my question. Answer the question!’ But the group is turning against him: the other disciples are all reciting ‘Consider the lily’, and ‘Aaaaah,’ claiming that they understand exactly what is meant, that it’s easy-peasy. In the hubbub created, Jesus quietly escapes the hard question.

I thought of this on reading 12 Rules for Life by psychology professor Jordan Peterson. His twelve rules are ones I would agree with in normal circumstances: stand up for yourself, listen more than you talk, remember you can learn something from everyone. The book earns its bestseller status. Peterson is clear and compelling in his writing. He makes you consider the world afresh, and tells you some things you don’t know. I do not doubt the testimonies that he has helped people.

In my life I have been treated by many clinical psychologists. I am glad that Dr Peterson wasn’t one of them. Why?

Part of the answer is the heavy religious overtones. Long sections are based around biblical analysis. Faith and psychology mix easier than you would think. Peterson put me in mind of the psychiatrist M Scott Peck. Peck’s People of the Lie is a sharp and thoughtful work on everyday evil. Using examples from his clinical practice and elsewhere, Peck explored the manifestation of malevolence in the twentieth century. As the professor says in Sophie Hannah’s Lasting Damage, it offers the best definition of human evil any of us are likely to come across. But Peck was very faith oriented. He claimed to have taken part in exorcisms.

Peterson draws from many spiritual disciplines. The Bible is chief among them. At somewhat wearying length Peterson explains to us the sacrifice of Abraham, Cain’s murder of Abel, the Great Flood, the travails of Moses, the Sermon on the Mount – yes, consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin. Skip a bit, brother, you’re saying, to no avail. Peterson talks also about the Garden of Eden, the temptation, and the Serpent – and this is important, because for Peterson the snakes are everywhere, they’re writhing behind every goddamn bush.

12 Rules for Life is subtitled An Antidote to Chaos. For Peterson chaos is everywhere. Life’s course is a rickety bridge across a yawning chasm of chaos. It’s a well worn path through a dark dangerous forest. Listen up, and step right, because safety is a miracle, success an aberration, and if you take the wrong step even slightly, you’re over the edge. The road less travelled is less travelled for a reason. ‘Chaos is the despair and horror you feel when you have been profoundly betrayed,’ Peterson writes. ‘It’s the place you end up when things fall apart; when your dreams die, your career collapses, or your marriage ends. It’s the underworld of fairytale and myth’.

The doctor’s cruel vision has a lot of truth in it – and I could take the harshness were it not allied with a grim simplistic worldview less suited to the seminar room than to the frathouse or incel chatboard. Life is about winning, Peterson says. You need to be a winner, so you can have ‘preferential access to the best places to live and the highest-quality food. People compete to do you favours. You have limitless opportunity for romantic and sexual contact… the most desirable females line up and vie for your attention.’ I must say that being a winner sounds great – certainly better than being a loser. Peterson warns of this fate, also. ‘You’re in poor physical and mental condition. You’re of minimal romantic interest to anyone, unless they are as desperate as you. You are more likely to fall ill, age rapidly, and die young, with few, if any, to mourn you.’ Sad!

How to escape such dismal prospects? Sleep properly, eat a good breakfast – ‘fat and protein-heavy’ but with ‘no simple carbohydrates, no sugars, as they are digested too rapidly, and produce a blood-sugar spike and rapid dip’. Drinking too much is not good for you, Peterson sternly informs us. It fucks with the flow of good brain chemicals that keep us happy and expectant of good things. The heavy drinker, it appears, ‘has learned to drink to cure his hangover. When the medication causes the disease, a positive feedback loop has been established. Alcoholism can quickly emerge under such conditions.’

Perhaps some Christian compassion is in order here? Not at all. To avoid becoming a loser, it’s necessary to cut losers out of your lives. You may be tempted to help an old friend who has gotten into trouble. Not a good idea, Peterson says. For once people stray from the magic path, they go to deep dark places very quickly: ‘it is much harder to extract someone from a chasm than to lift him from a ditch. And some chasms are very deep. And there’s not much of the body at the bottom.’ In fact, with some exceptions, Peterson seems exasperated by most people, not just the losers in his life. He’s forever complaining about his small-town ne’er-do-well alcoholic friends, the parents he knows who are too soft on their kids, his feckless court-ordered patients – and they must have done things pretty bad, these convicts, to be sent to the perennially impatient Dr Peterson. Why does he bother? Why do you bother, in fact?

Perhaps orders and systems inspire Dr Peterson more than people. ‘I dreamt one night,’ Peterson writes, ‘that I was suspended in mid-air, clinging to a chandelier, many stories above the ground, directly under the dome of a massive cathedral. The people on the floor below were distant and tiny.’ Authority matters. Tradition, culture, society everything we know, is the result of the sweat and blood of millions of our ancestors who laboured long and hard so we could enjoy brief moments of safety and plenty – so show some respect. True enough – although the house of tradition has many rooms, and some of those rooms are boarded up for a reason: there’s an awful lot of dried blood on the walls, and some nasty-looking manacles, but never mind that for now.

Because the house of tradition is under attack – isn’t it always? Here’s where Peterson begins to sing a familiar tune, perhaps it’s the song that gave the Canadian psychologist a warm welcome on these shores. Society is falling apart, Peterson says. It’s too easy to get divorced. Women should concentrate on having babies. And as for the great halls of the university, well, you should see it these days. It’s a fucking zoo. Postmodernism, genderqueer theory, political activism – what’s next?

‘It’s worse, I think, for young men. As privileged beneficiaries of the patriarchy, their accomplishments are considered unearned. As possible adherents of rape culture, they’re sexually suspect.’ There are too many women at university, Peterson gravely informs us. ‘If you eliminate the so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) programs (excluding psychology) the female-male ratio is even more skewed.’ We are all, in fact, being feminised. ‘When softness and harmlessness become the only consciously acceptable virtues, then hardness and dominance will start to exert an unconscious fascination… The populist groundswell of support for Donald Trump in the US is part of the same process, as is (in far more sinister form) the recent rise of far-right political parties even in such moderate and liberal places as Holland, Sweden and Norway.’ Pundits commonly attribute the rise of contemporary fascism to economic anxiety and mass immigration. It is at least original to blame college admission quotas.

Last year was my tenth anniversary of writing this blog and I played with the idea of writing a ‘life lessons’ post summing up the insights I had during the ten years. Suffice to say there weren’t very many, the year passed and I abandoned the attempt. Reading Peterson, however, brought some of those ideas back. They come from things I learned from psychologists, from books, and other places.

If I were asked – and why would I be, but indulge an old man for a second – for a golden rule of life, I would say: remember that the people above you, your family, your peers, your teachers, your employers, the government, aren’t necessarily right in what they say, and don’t necessarily have your well being at heart. People waste years in dark places because they feel they have to follow some words of not-so-wisdom dispensed by an authority figure – and ‘authority figure’ – can mean anyone with enough self importance to claim to be so.

When someone looks at you and says ‘Aaaaah,’ don’t be afraid to say, ‘No, not ‘Aaaaaah’.’

My second piece of advice would be simply ‘It’s okay’. Sophie Hannah wrote in The Narrow Bed that a great avoidable amount of human misery comes from being ashamed of our feelings, and she wasn’t wrong. It’s okay to feel rage, sadness, terror – let it come, acknowledge it all and take ownership of it. The present is not (as Peterson sometimes says) a preparation for the future. The present is the moment and the moment is being alive. It’s okay to be in the present and not think about the future. It’s even okay to be weak. As Beecher says in Oz: Maybe I’m a weak man – but I have the balls to admit it.

At the end of Nothing But the Truth, Anna Politkovskaya’s collection of journalism, there is a section called ‘The Other Anna’ where Politkovskaya leaves the horrors of the Chechen war and Putin’s regime behind for a while, and talks of more human things – her love of the Tango Argentino, the city of Paris, and foreign travel. Included here is a piece about Politkovskaya’s dog, who she called ‘van Gogh’. This was not an easy dog to live with. As soon as Politkovskaya got him home, he started pissing – and kept it up with some regularity. The worst was that the dog seemed to be ashamed of his incontinence, ‘hiding away or, even more awful, trying to lick it up so we wouldn’t see it.’ He had an inflamed bladder. But a huge part of it was anxiety. He didn’t like going outside. Politskovskaya persisted. She took him out for walks. Not easy. ‘I had to half carry him, half drag him like a sledge, 40-50 kilograms of resisting live dog, between the cars.’

People said: why bother with the expense, the hassle? Shouldn’t he be put to sleep?

Politikovskaya wrote:

It is evening once again. I turn the key in the door and van Gogh hurtles to greet me from wherever he is, every time. No matter how his stomach may be hurting, no matter how soundly he might have been sleeping, no matter what it was he was eating […]

I take him, I lead him to the car, I drive him to the road. I leap alongside him to get him to jump about with the other dogs in the square. I show him how he ought to play with them. I run the obstacle course with him to help him overcome his fear, and I take him over to other men. I take their hands and stroke van Gogh’s ears with them, and try to persuade him they are not dangerous.

And that is a great deal more profound than anything I learned from Jordan Peterson.

Like Doctors From House to House

June 15, 2018

How Eros must have wept, Martin Amis wrote, at the milkman’s disappearance from our streets. In contemporary fiction the milkman has not so much disappeared as curdled. Stephen King wrote a pair of very creepy stories about a rogue milkman, collected in Skeleton Crew, and it’s a milkman who brings the underworld to Billy’s door in Joseph Connor’s The Salesman – Nap, ‘the milkman of fuckin’ human kindness’. And let’s not forget Pat Mustard of Craggy Island, who turns murderous once his morning trysts are exposed.

The milkman in Anna Burns’s novel isn’t really a milkman. He’s a connected man in the novel’s small community, who takes a creepy interest in Burns’s nameless narrator. A nameless eighteen year old woman known only as ‘middle sister’, the narrator has no interest in the milkman – in fact, she’s repelled and shaken by his attentions. But the protagonist’s family, and the village gossips, assume that she is in a relationship with this older connected married man. Complications follow.

I think what with the #MeToo movement a lot more of us have become familiar with what feminists call ‘the male gaze’ and how it can make women feel. Helen Lewis wrote: ‘I think of sexism as a Bullshit Tax. On top of doing my job, I have to: smile weakly at weird men who shout at me in the street, in case they get offended and try to kill me’. Milkman gives you some idea of being on the wrong end of that gaze.

This had been a movement unnatural, an omen of warning, originating in the coccyx, with its vibration then setting off ripples – ugly, rapid, threatening ripples – travelling into my buttocks, gathering speed into my hamstrings of where, inside a moment, they sped to the dark recesses behind my knees and disappeared. This took one second, just one second, and my first thought – unbidden, unchecked – was that this was the underside of an orgasm, how one might imagine some creepy, back-of-body, partially convulsive shadow of an orgasm – an anti-orgasm. 

It’s not just the milkman who gives middle sister this feeling. The milkman is not just a creep and a predator, he’s a signifier of a creepy and broken community. Burns is hazy on time and place, but the world of the milkman is some kind of Irish border town in the 1970s, the sort of place where the local provisionals held mock trials in public, and everyone knew more than was healthy about everyone else. Expectations are ground to nothing. Bitterness and disappointments are borne stoically, almost with a perverse pride. Most people in your family seem to have either joined the provisionals or been disappeared by them. If you’re a woman, your role is to marry young, and raise children to participate in the same toxic ecosystem.

We’ve been here before, but Burns’s prose makes it seem so much more real. In long sentences that spool into pages, she details the hierarchies and assumptions that entrench in poor communities. Middle sister is already something of an eccentric (or a ‘character’ as the provincial phrase goes) and her worries about the milkman, her family and village perceptions – they go on and on into the narrative like the fretful spiral of an anxious thought. Milkman is a modernist panic attack of a novel. The effect is stressful but also compelling – Burns invests you too much in the reading experience to abandon it for long. There is also a startling relief when perceptions shift and we realise that other, better things can be perceived of as possibles:

So I nodded at the sunset, at this horizon, which made no sense […] and it was at that moment, just as I was thinking, what the fuck are they – that something out there – or something in me – then changed. It fell into place because now, instead of blue, blue and more blue – the official blue everyone understood and thought was up there – the truth hit my senses. It became clear as I gazed that there was no blue out there at all. For the first time I saw colours, just as a week later in this French class also was I seeing colours. On both occasions, these colours were blending and mixing, sliding and extending, new colours combining, colours going on forever, except one which was missing, which was blue […] Question was, was it a safe something or a threatening something? What was it, really, I was responding to here?

So Milkman is not a miserabilist novel – there are dreams, moments of hope, signs of gradual and incremental change. It’s just a very self contained novel. I recommend it absolutely – but only readers with strong stomachs and iron nerves should apply.

Bret Easton Ellis and the Hangover

June 9, 2018

Last month there was an interview with Bret Easton Ellis in the TLS that I’ve been thinking about, by the novelist Natalie Olah. I’ve read it again and these for me are the standout passages:

Nathalie Olah: There’s a sense of culture really becoming strangled recently by this pervasive tone or moralizing and preaching, helped along by social media and the consensus culture of likes and retweets.

Bret Easton Ellis: It’s terrible. And it’s a terrible way to live as an artist. You see it affecting the arts on a vague, vague but vast scale – where is the taboo? Where is the Other? So what if it’s offensive? Good! Where is this bizarre idea of art created by committee, by a democracy, coming from? Art isn’t created by a democracy! And there seems to be this thing, especially on social media, of group-approved art, that’s chilling.

I don’t believe utopia is in our DNA. I think we’re deeply flawed animals with a sort of sexual lawlessness, that we are violent, that we want to be on top, that we want to be in control of things. We obviously don’t want to be killing each other in the streets, but we’ve got to get realistic about who we really are and what it means to be a woman, what it means to be a man, what it means to be a gay man.

I wouldn’t have been the writer I am if I’d been raised in a very safe, no-bully environment with a nice mom and dad who looked after me and made sure everything was ok. I was talking to Laura Jane Grace, who’s a transgender singer from a band called Against Me!. She’s a powerful songwriter. When she finally became Laura Jane Grace the songwriting jumped up a hundred notches. She made three great records with the band. But she said there is no way she would have ever done any of it had she had a normal childhood with parental love and acceptance from her friends. I think your experiences of pain and alienation and people marginalizing you is what forces out this expressiveness. I think we’re becoming a society that wants to erase all of that. Put everyone into this safe group that is all taken care of and everyone’s the same and no one’s different and we all love each other and we’re eradicating all pain and it’s all very nice and it’s all very utopian; I just don’t think that’s who we really are and I don’t know what the end game of that is.

How much there is to unravel here! I love Ellis, but there’s a familiar tone in his remarks, that of the older maverick intellectual who no longer really understands how the world is changing and retreats into defensive cynicism and outrage seeking. It’s far more common in England where we have a very strong tradition of anti-modern disillusionment (beginning with Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell, maybe even before them). With contemporary shock columnists like Rod Liddle and James Delingpole, there’s a sense they are trying to tap into this High Church aesthetic. There’s the US counterpart as well – the Grand Old Man of the counterculture, obsessed with ethnic struggle and complaining about the crazy students at Harvard these days.

Ellis’s points about virtue culture are obviously well founded but what Ellis (and many other adversarial commentators) never take into account is the backlash to that kind of culture. For every woke left virtue signalling tweet there’s a very clever man online who will spend hours deconstructing it. There’s a cottage industry now of ‘lol SJWs’. This industry has its own vanity (‘look how clever, and rational, and unemotional I am!’) and its own sensitivities. The latest thing is the phrase ‘gammon’ to describe a certain kind of reactionary, middle aged fellow. No sooner had this term entered usage then the other side of the culture war mounted its high horse, and damned the term as offensive towards white working class people – or people with hypertension, I can’t keep up.

My point is that virtue culture and SJWs used to dominate discourse but it’s darker and more complicated than that now. I am convinced that more and more people are getting turned away from political discourse because it is so toxic and full of this kind of self aggrandisement. Perhaps that is the point. But writers don’t often say so, because the poetry of fighting SJWs has a strong simple lure of its own.

What does all that say about social justice? Like Ellis, I don’t think utopia is in our DNA. We’re wired up for survival rather than happiness and the realisation of this is a huge psychological boost, it has been for me anyway. Where this feeds into Ellis’s points about generational cultures is, again, where it gets more complicated. Millennials tend, in my experience, to be more hardy and practical than older people – they have learned to manage without the welfare state and full employment that older generations took for granted.

Does that explain ‘why there isn’t a Great Millennial Novel. Or The Great Millennial Novelist’ as Ellis asks? Who knows, I can’t name an epic Augie March style defining book for millennials, although there have been fine books by millennials and perhaps that epic definitive work will come. It is – contra the envy trope that writers have to be hot, young and marketable – not easy for young people to get stuff published.

Utopia is not in our DNA. What is there is a striving for positive change and positivity, and it comes, incrementally and gradually. Bad experiences may make you stronger, or more creative, but more often that not they leave nothing but bad memories. Like Ellis says, who knows what the end game will be or what tomorrow will bring? Perhaps safety and happiness is an illusion – but it’s worth looking for, all the same. And the search may be our one reliable instinct.

Diary of a Hard Woman: Louise O’Neill’s ‘Almost Love’

May 20, 2018

What a perfect novel this must have been to pitch. All you had to say was ‘It’s a story of a woman who lets down everyone in her life, including herself.’ Or: ‘This book is about a ghastly person who you would cross a five-lane highway to avoid.’ As my colleague Annabel says: ‘Sarah is selfish, and thus a hard character to love. It’s a brave author that bases a novel around someone so unsympathetic’. God but Sarah Fitzpatrick is awful.

An artist and schoolteacher from rural Ireland, Sarah struggles in liberal Dublin. She has talent as an artist but not quite enough to propel her into the big time. She is a good teacher but can’t be bothered with the hours of donkey work teachers need to do to stay ahead. Her life is a bottleneck, a familiar one. At a parents’ evening she meets Matthew Brennan, a wealthy property developer twenty years older, who has just got out of a messy divorce. They develop a relationship based around rough casual sex in hotels. Sarah wants something more from Matthew – but she can’t say what. She obsesses over him, wants to possess him, and it overwhelms her life.

In another kind of novel Sarah would be really bad. She would stalk Matthew, kidnap his children, frame him for murder. But Sarah does not do the extravagant evil of a Judith Rashleigh or Amy Elliott Dunne: instead she operates on a low-level social nastiness that is much more familiar. She gets drunk and hijacks special occasions. She turns friends and housemates against each other. She comes off as being embarrassed and irritated by her loving monogamous partners. She uses and abuses those who love her to impress those who don’t.

O’Neill loves the monster she’s created. She invests enough in Sarah’s unhappy backstory to make us care a little, too. The novel really captures the rhythms of life – births, deaths, marriages, breakups – in the close social circle where Sarah finally exhausts everyone’s sympathy. But close relationships can be suffocating and the lectures from friends and family, while well founded, are clearly hard for Sarah to take. Being constantly told what to do and how to live is part of how so many young people get screwed up.

There’s a telling scene where Matthew takes Sarah to his gated mansion just to talk. This huge palatial residence only reveals the smallness of the man who lives there. Matthew has always presented himself as an alpha male but at this point the mask slips and it’s obvious that he’s just a lonely broken man who has fucked up his marriage and will never get over it. Sarah, true to form, feels only contempt for the pathetic loser behind the winner and walks out on him.

This is about as intimate as this couple gets, and the relationship tails out not long after that. The rest of the story is a fast road into the darkness. It becomes compelling as the reader races through each chapter of Sarah’s disasters and betrayals, looking for a redemption that doesn’t happen. Yet it’s not dreary or depressing at all. The ending resonates and you do hope that Sarah manages to get her head together and make something of herself. Life is a test, but not always a test that’s fair or simple. Hemingway said that the world breaks everyone and some grow strong at the broken places. God, I hope so.

Triptych

May 15, 2018

This is a vampire story – the first story I have written featuring vampires, I am quite proud of it, albeit that dozens of outlets turned it down before the fine people at Yorkshire zine Idle Ink published the piece today.

Over at Shiny I have also reviewed The Good Mothers, Alex Perry’s compelling tale of how dissident women took on the fearsome N’drangheta mafia.

Everything Old Is New Again

May 14, 2018

If I had to recommend a historian on the twentieth century terrors to someone who was coming new to it, I would probably choose Timothy Snyder. His Bloodlands is a masterful study of how the Nazis and Communists half destroyed Europe. The follow up, Black Earth, was derided on publication, but I think in time it will get its due as an evocation of how scarcity of food and other resources brings about the preconditions for fascism. Of course there are many other historians who write about the Third Reich and the Soviet Union. But none have the compelling urgency of Snyder’s prose. He writes beautifully, even lyrically – as lyrical as anyone can write of such dark periods. In The Road to Unfreedom Snyder turns his fire on our own time.

It’s customary to look back with a rueful chuckle to 1989 and the declaration of the end of history and the years before the market crash. How naive we all were. Conventional wisdom held that people would be happy with their smartphones and their credit cards and their cheap mortgages. We forgot that there are darker passions in human history that don’t go away: disregarded, also, that the Long Boom wasn’t a boom for everyone and that millions suffered in poverty during those years. Snyder calls this complacency the fable of the wise nation: the idea that we had learned our lesson from history and that nothing more could go wrong. Another phrase of his is the politics of inevitability: ‘the future is just more of the present, that the laws of progress are known, that there are no alternatives, and therefore nothing really to be done.’

The Road to Unfreedom is a very macro, international book, but you can see, with hindsight of course, how its ideas work on smaller scales. Let’s look at my own country, the UK, and how it did in the book’s timeframe of the 2010s. In May 2010 a Conservative-led coalition took power here. David Cameron and George Osborne were classic inevitability politicians with a catchy narrative: ‘there is no money left’. Previous social democrat governments had run up a huge deficit with welfare programmes, and it was the job of the Tories to sort out the nation’s finances. The Conservatives went to town with a slash-and-burn programme.

Within years, the effects were visible. When I left the city of Manchester in 2013 it was a thriving metropolis with few social problems. By the middle 2010s it had food banks, tent cities and drug epidemics. Cameron and Osborne talked like liberals, but people starved. Then Cameron made his final blunder. He had been harried for years by the far right UKIP party, which sold a competing narrative of grievance and victimhood tied to Britain’s membership of the EU. By calling a referendum on Europe, Cameron believed he could call the opposition’s bluff and end the argument about identity and migration forever. Look how well it worked.

The optics would be familiar to anyone living in Putin’s Russia in the 2010s. As Karen Dawisha explains in her startling book Putin’s Kleptocracy, he rose to become Russia’s president against a background of oligarchs ripping off the country’s wealth and resources in the messy post communist years. By the time the former KGB colonel reached power, the EU had expanded eastwards. Countries that once lived under the Soviet Union acceded to a democratic bloc. For the reactionary traditionalist Putin, Russia was a pure and changeless country menaced by decadent godless Europe, with the American superpower right behind it. Putin spoke the language of traditions and values under ceaseless attack. Victimhood is essential to the authoritarian philosophy. George Orwell recognised it. On reviewing Hitler’s Mein Kampf he wrote that ‘The initial, personal cause of his grievance against the universe can only be guessed at; but at any rate the grievance is here. He is the martyr, the victim, Prometheus chained to the rock, the self-sacrificing hero who fights single-handed against impossible odds. If he were killing a mouse he would know how to make it seem like a dragon.’

In Bloodlands and Black Earth, Snyder showed how totalitarian forces destroy populations. In the twentieth century they did it by dismantling the state apparatus and civil society that kept citizens safe from harm. In countries that had sovereign infrastructure, persecuted individuals had a chance to escape. In places like Poland or Ukraine, that didn’t, far more people ended up in the concentration camp or the mass grave. To defeat Europe, Snyder explains, Putin had to make it more like Russia: not an alliance of sovereign democracies but an empire ruled by strong leaders. Russia did this by encouraging puppet leaders to rise in fragile democracies, and encouraging far right nativist elements in European countries. Ukraine was the first main battleground. It was in talks to sign an association agreement with the EU as a first step towards full membership.

Russia’s preferred leader in Ukraine was President Yanukovych, a kleptocrat crass even by Putin’s standards. Reporter Shaun Walker, in The Long Hangover, describes that after the revolution, ‘There was both marvel and anger as people discovered how their leader had lived: the overwrought palatial interiors of the main residence, the garage packed with vintage automobiles, the petting zoo with ostriches and llamas in residence, and the ersatz Spanish galleon moored on the president’s private lake.’ Yanukovych vacillated over the association agreement, and his heavy-handed bumbling led to spiralling protest. Here Snyder touches on the human element of the Maidan protests: people building barricades out of snow and wooden pilings, the makeshift civil society that sprang up on the square (there were even Maidan weddings) the elderly protestors who donned their best suits before going to the demonstrations, in case government snipers killed them that night. It was a forgotten populist revolution where ordinary people risked their lives for democracy.

Putin’s circle still thought of Russia as a colony, but that doesn’t entirely explain the invasion. The Maidan was the threat of a good example in practice. The philosophy of the Russian state in the 2010s wasn’t about the rule of law or sovereignty or human rights. It was about faith and flag and the weak being enslaved by the strong. Crank ideologues of the twentieth century – Lev Gumilev, Ivan Ilyin, Julius Evola – were resurrected and their ideas became surprisingly influential. (It took hard work to adapt these ideas for a modern audience. Gumilev claimed that some nations became more powerful than others because they could absorb patriotism in the form of cosmic rays. A French thinker, Jean Parvulesco, argued that everything depended on how close you were to the sea: ‘the Americans and British yield to abstract Jewish ideas because their maritime economies separate them from the earthy truths of human experience.’)

The intellectual patina of such authors was not inherited by modern Russian state propaganda, which operates like a clickbait factory. Oliver Kamm reports that ‘On March 6, two days after the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal, the [Russian] Embassy felt so little horror at the attack or sympathy for its victims that it issued a press release condemning ‘a new phase of the anti-Russian campaign’ and called for an end to ‘the demonisation of Russia’.’ Of course you’re not supposed to believe that MI6 organised the Douma chemical attack, that the EU is run by gay Nazis, or any of the other stuff RT puts out. The point is the knowing smirk, the manufacture of liberal outrage, and the display of raw power. Crime writer Sophie Hannah defined a scary adversary as someone who will lie to you, knowing you know it’s a lie, and daring you to contradict them. Putin’s Russia is that adversary on state level.

Snyder has a blistering chapter on Donald Trump, an incompetent real estate tycoon who went to the Russian banks when he finally ran out of credit in his own country. You can debate the extent of Trump’s ties to Russia and Putin. (My edition of Red Mafiya, Robert Friedman’s 2000 book on Russian mob activity in the US, claims that the fearsome coke kingpin Vyacheslav Ivankov was eventually run to ground in a Trump condo: ‘A copy of Ivankov’s personal phone book, which was obtained by the author, included a working number for the Trump Organisation’s Trump Tower Residence, and a Trump Organisation office fax machine.’) Putin’s appeal to Trump was obvious anyway: a fellow authoritarian strongman who shared a love of power, and an aversion to people of colour, assertive women, free expression, and critical media. The Trump model has unlikely imitators. The Labour Party’s Jeremy Corbyn is seen as a kindly socialist but with its antisemitism, its love of strong leaders and its dislike of uppity women and journalists, his movement is basically Trumpism with sandals.

For all that The Road to Unfreedom is a macro book, Snyder has great sympathy with ordinary Americans struggling with low incomes and economic anxiety, and highlights the inequality and oligarchism in America as much as Russia. The question is implicit: if Trump, Farage, Putin are populists, why are they so bad at delivering results for the common man? The average Trump or Brexit voter has a raw deal. Instead of a better future, they get only a lament for lost countries. They see meaningful work replaced with the gig economy and meaningful arguments replaced with culture-war spectacle. The conclusion of Snyder’s exceptional book is: people deserve better.

The Runner Slows Down

May 13, 2018

This is no easy post to write. It may well be the most contentious thing I’ve written. It’s personal to me because many of my friends, colleagues, close acquaintances, people I admire, people I respect, are marathon runners. I’m in a long term relationship with someone who has run half marathons. So here’s the problem: I think marathons are boring.

Don’t worry – this isn’t going to be a Spiked Online style rant about the evils of ‘charity muggers’. I think charities are a massively important part of civil society, I have worked for charities, I think on the whole they do an enormous amount of good. I know the argument that some people only give to charity so that they can feel good about themselves – but so what. The drug of sanctimony is harmless in small doses.

So whenever anyone passes the tin around for a charity marathon, I always give. But part of me sighs inside. Why?

It’s not like I don’t care for exercise. I have worked out on and off for almost twenty years, I use a home cycle, I even box occasionally, I walk most everywhere (and not just because automotive travel gives me panic attacks). When I was younger I used to get up at 6am and sprint up and down the Transpennine or around Woodhouse Park, and then go to work. I’m no alpha male, I’m another middle aged suburban guy with a beer gut, but I do understand the benefits and pleasure of exercise. People say: ‘Running is very good not just for physical health but for your mental health.’ I get that.

So why am I bored of marathons? I think it is just one of those minor irritations that we all have towards people who do other things that are positive but for some reason we find annoying and objectionable, in a way that is hard to define. If blogging has a purpose in this day and age, it is a space for refining one’s irrational prejudices.

Part of my feeling is that a marathon seems like such a waste of time. Sign up for a marathon and you are committing yourself to months of preparation for a single event. And it doesn’t seem like a fun event – you are not going to be tearing around green spaces but logjammed in a city centre with hundreds of other sweating, red-faced competitors, which for me would take all the pleasure and freedom out of running. It’s a subjective thing, but by the same token I don’t go to the gym because I don’t want to be surrounded by other customers and landfill chart house when I can work out in my house with Netflix and my own superior music.

Marathon runners raise sponsorship money – again, I think that’s great, no problems there – but then, it would be less time consuming if you just sold your car and gave that money to charity. Okay, that means you don’t have a car, but on the other hand you have just saved yourself months of free time, a net gain. Living without a car will give you an exercise benefit from having to walk places instead. You might say it’s not practical to give up the car, but neither really is running 13-26 miles in one day.

Which brings me to my next point: marathon running is very compartmentalised. Journalist Nick Cohen – a late, unlikely and enthusiastic marathon runner – tried to imagine what a truly health based society would look like. He concluded that it would not be enough to crack down on booze, tobacco and junk food.

Pedestrians and cyclists would have priority on the roads. If the roads are too narrow to take cars, cycle lanes and a pavement wide enough to allow pedestrians to walk or run in comfort, then cars will have to go. School runs will become history as heads refuse to admit any able-bodied child who arrives at school in a car.

It will not necessarily be illegal to drive in towns and cities, just pointless. Motorists would inch along because cycle and bus lanes would take up road space and pelican crossings would be reset so pedestrians never had to wait more than a minute to cross a road. Even when they reached their destinations, drivers would search forever for a space because car parks would have been demolished and replaced with public parks.

My point is that rather than close the city centre road network for one day to have a marathon we should be encouraging people to avoid car travel where possible. That means restructuring cities so that they are easier to walk and run in.

Probably the main issue for me is the commitment thing. It just seems overly stressful to commit yourself to a long term training regime. It fits neatly, though, with the way our society is going. It’s like for capitalism to be viable people have to commit to more and more – the mortgage, the family, the career, the schools – until it overwhelms their lives and finally burns them out.

Let me end the rambling and contentious post by saying again that no disrespect to you if you are into marathon culture and the mass charity running. I’ll be on Woodhouse Moor.

(Image: Wikipedia)

The Wilderness Years

May 4, 2018

There’s a thing in modern publishing that goes by ‘new folk lit’, or maybe ‘nature lit’. It’s a general term to cover novels and memoirs set in rural and remote places where the feel and texture of the countryside figures prominently. H is for Hawk, the indie novels of Ben Myers, Amy Liptrot’s recovery memoir, Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpentthe Herdwick Shepherd books, Abi Andrews’s The Word for Woman is Wilderness – the genre is huge. Any books page on a given week is apt to feature a history of a particular wood or livestock animal, or a journey of personal rediscovery on a distant windy island. Henry Miller wrote that ‘I have nothing to do with the creaking machinery of humanity – I belong to the earth! I say that lying on my pillow and I can feel the horns sprouting from my temples.’ Yet the nature lit genre doesn’t always appeal to me because 1) so much of it feels like ‘Nature is all about me’ and 2) so many of these books are set in the past – I’ve only come across Amanda Craig’s exceptional The Lie of the Land, plus parts of Sarah Hall’s short stories, that give a sense of the countryside as a real, present environment in which people live their lives.

Zoe Gilbert’s Folk is an ideal of the genre. Her debut is a collection of integrated short stories set in the fishing community of Neverness on a mythical and yet entirely familiar island. It opens with a strange ritual: teenage girls fire ribbons with bow-and-arrow into an enormous gorse maze, and the village boys then have to run around the maze, chewing ribbons out of the gorse, in the hope of kisses when they eventually escape this labyrinth. But a boy named Crab Skerry wants more than kisses – he wants the Gorse Mother – ‘she puts it on you and it’s like ten mouths all at once. You go in the gorse and if she gets you, you come out a man.’

A man has a wing for an arm, a woman falls in love with a minotaur that lives in the sea. As Ben Myers writes in his review: ‘Superstition often proves to be prophecy rather than hokum, and human and animal kingdoms merge into areas of confused identity, a beautiful blurring of fur, feather and fin. Hares, kites and bees play vital roles. Dark magic exists.’ But as Myers also understands, the village also lives by ritual, custom and rules so strong that they are almost physical laws. It’s no surprise that bold young Crab’s search for the Gorse Mother ends in tragedy. And human nature is still the same: a couple of kids delight in hiding in a haunted cave, pretending to be an oracle and telling evil fortunes to whichever unwary villagers come to look for them.

Gilbert’s flaw is to argue all this too forcefully. Folk is beautifully written, boldly imagined, and at times (as in ‘Verlyn’s Blessings’) almost heartbreaking. The village is completely self contained: however much some of the islanders might yearn for escape, there’s no sense of another world beyond the ocean – and for me that makes it all a bit depressing. Myers says that ‘her island village could be almost any remote community from the past several thousand years’ – and that to me is the problem: the mundanity and the mirroring of our own world is excessive. Maybe that’s just me. The nature world is a nice place to visit, but like Al Swearengen, I prefer to sleep indoors.