Tomorrow Belongs To Me

May 19, 2019

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

The Vast and Wicked Stage

May 14, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

A Devil’s Bargain

May 5, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It has been a long time since 2017.

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

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

What’s their excuse?

If You Liked Neoliberalism, You’ll Love Nativism

April 27, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Hurricane relief.’ He pauses again.

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

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

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

‘Yeah, that too.’

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

‘That came through FedEx.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Fugitive Canvas

April 9, 2019

We think of the Weimar Republic as the calm before the storm. Its histories are near drowned out by an ominous descending note in the reader’s imagination. Clare Clark’s stunning novel reminds us that the Republic had a great autonomous life of its own – and that things did not have to go the way they went.

Clark’s acknowledgements testify to the thoroughness of her scholarship, but she avoids the obvious trap for the historical novelist, that of throwing her research around. She wears her learning lightly, and as a result her setting is recognisably Berlin, the city of Victor Klemperer and Alfred Döblin, not to mention Bernie Gunther. It is arts and cabaret and tenements and noise and life, a city where the National Socialist movement is just one of many political annoyances Berliners shrug off from the day to day. On the beach one summer young artist Emmeline is propositioned by a group of young thugs, who call her a ‘dirty little Jewess’. Emmeline insults them back in both German and Russian. It’s a fine scene but also the only point at which Clark’s world feels artificial in the knowing historian’s sense. It feels too much like a foreboding.

The plot itself involves a complex art fraud involving fake van Goghs. We begin with the elderly art critic, Julius Köhler-Schultz, embroiled in a bitter divorce from a much younger woman. (Clark handles the dying echoes of their relationship with deft irony: Julius tells us in narration that his ex Luisa is a mindless dilettante but her voice that cuts into his thoughts is always bright and perceptive.) A young man named Matthias Rachmann seeks him out for advice on his fledgling career as an art dealer. Matthias has a Russian friend who smuggles numerous great works out of post-revolution Moscow. The novice is flattering and deferential, and soon Julius trusts him more than any living soul. Later, the young man is convicted of selling forged paintings and his disgrace threatens to ruin Berlin’s galleries, its valuation experts, anyone who was ever gulled by Rachmann’s ingenue charm.

Who cares when most of these paintings will end up on the pyres of degenerate art anyway? But Clark’s strong narrative carries you along, the pull and tug of a complex story well told, and you don’t have to know anything about art (I certainly don’t) to be absorbed in her world. (Emmeline’s chapters have some marvellous vignettes on arts in advertising and commerce.) But it is the final sequence, the diaries of Frank Berszacki, that really resonate. By this point it is 1933 and the net is tightening. Frank is a burned out lawyer, who defended Rachmann unsuccessfully. As a Jew he is vulnerable, and his passages are full of disappearances and deportations and insults and abuse.

Mourning a lost country and a lost child, Frank’s diaries are deeply sad. Yet they are also inspiring as Clark captures the forbearance and dignity in Frank’s love for his wife and their determination to keep their family together whatever the odds. You finish In The Full Light of the Sun with the sense that there will be another morning someday.

The Drama of Reassurance

April 1, 2019

I never got into Line of Duty. It’s generally on in our house and I did try at some point to watch series two in sequence but it just didn’t take. Sure, I love the BBC, but it’s rare I can enjoy its dramas. Their last great show was Happy Valley, a hardboiled crime series set in Calderdale. It ran for two seasons before the execs, presumably realising that a frisky beast had escaped the killing-pen, cancelled it for good. Since then I’ve not been able to watch flagship BBC drama.

Long before Line of Duty Jed Mercurio wrote a novel called Bodies, about a junior hospital doctor. The doctor begins with good intentions but soon becomes burned out and disillusioned with the sclerotic and unaccountable hospital trust. Eventually the doctor is himself investigated for negligence and, on suspension, he watches TV at his parents’ house:

Our public services are failing while television plays hour after hour of incorruptible policemen catching criminals, of crusading lawyers keeping the innocent out of prison, of streetwise social workers rescuing children from abuse, of heroic doctors sticking needles in tension pneumos… I’m flicking between the real world and the drama of reassurance and I feel like I’m the only person watching who recognises the mendacity, sees it clear enough to want to kick in the TV screen.

Line of Duty is about police corruption, but to me it seems also a drama of reassurance. It is an Aaron Sorkin show transferred to London – a world of impeccable people saying the right things in firm RP accents, a world of pristine uniforms and tidy, unhurried offices, of gleaming official cars and hushed corridors and an authority that listens. It is television that takes itself very very seriously. And it communicates, I think, a love of power and process.

While Line of Duty is sort of believable, Mercurio absolutely let his imagination run away from him in his stand alone series Bodyguard. Richard Madden plays a ex-soldier straight out of the metropolitan cliched image of what ex soldiers are like. He is assigned to protect Keeley Hawes, playing a Home Secretary whose policies Madden despises. Naturally, the gruff ex-squaddie and the high-class politician become lovers, before Mercurio has her character killed, and sends Madden off on a mercy mission to capture Hawes’s Deep State killers. Bitch, please. 

Clearly I’m in a minority in my views. Everyone else I know is obsessed with Line of Duty, it’s all over my social media, spilling into the news pages, and there is even a Line of Duty podcast. (What can they find to talk about?) I am the Line of Duty Grinch. But still, I’m not alone. The fabulous Danuta Kean picked up on the show’s cavalier approach to procedural details:

With the subtlety of a size nine boot, each episode has been riddled with inconsistencies that would never pass muster in a novel. From the fact that women being brutally killed seems to be less of a priority than nailing dodgy DCI Roz Huntley, through to a rookie member of the AC-12 anti-corruption team blithely scribbling his password onto a Post-it note. Or the inability of Huntley’s colleagues to notice her suppurating wound, or that all the CPS needs to prosecute is a copper with a hunch, as happens with hapless Polish cleaner Hana Reznikova.

Novelist Kate London also queried the show’s realism while recognising that its problems run deeper than fidelity to force policies.

I don’t even think that any appearance of reality is important in making us consider bigger questions. It all depends on what kind of story you are telling. In Breaking Bad, Walter White, a former chemistry teacher, runs a million-dollar methamphetamine business in Albuquerque. It’s clearly fiction but somehow the complexity of White – his relationship with his family, his young business partner and with money itself – contains something truthful that convinces us. The challenge seems to be to write a gripping plot that also makes us consider our own lives, societies and beliefs. We know TV can do this.

This is it for me. To vary an old saw, it is not the tale but how you tell it. You can start with a ridiculous premise but you can sell it if you trust the audience and tell them something they might not already know. The converse applies: you can have a very well researched and realistic story but it won’t work if you don’t recognise the intelligence of your audience or do the hard work involved in building your world.

It is a subjective thing of course but for me Line of Duty doesn’t do this so that’s why it doesn’t work. It is to the crime drama what Jeffrey Archer is to the novel.

I’m the Screen: The Lives of Lee Miller

March 16, 2019

In May 1945, Lee Miller heard the news that Hitler was dead. She heard it from Hitler’s apartment in Munich. Miller and her colleague Dave Scherman had found the place with some US troops, undamaged enough to ride out the remainder of the war. Since 1942 Miller had been the war correspondent for Vogue. Her passion was photography. She took a whole series of shots in Hitler’s flat, but her most famous from that time is the one where she was the model – enjoying a long soak in the Führer’s bathtub. (The Guardian has a good gallery of Miller’s war shots, here.)

Miller hadn’t posed for a long time. She had been one of the most adored models in New York of the late 1920s. After two years, she tired of it and moved to Paris where she reinvented herself as a photographer. This is where Whitney Scharer’s novel of Miller comes in – when she is just another face in the city: ‘When she walks through Montparnasse, her new neighborhood, no one catches her eye, no one turns around to watch her pass. Instead, Lee seems to be just another pretty detail in a city where almost everything is artfully arranged.’

Miller meets the artist Man Ray when she is running out of money and half-crazy from loneliness in Paris. He offers her a job as his assistant. The two have passions in common and inevitably they fall in love, and The Age of Light charts their stormy relationship. There is a new trend in fiction for novels about real people – see Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott‘s stunning Swan Song, which tells the life of Truman Capote through his relationships with his woman friends.

The Age of Light did not work as well for me because Scharer shrinks the viewfinder of Miller’s life into the short years she spent with Man Ray. The problem with writing about relationships is that there’s only a certain number of scenarios that can play out (boy meets girl…) and you don’t have to know anything about Miller or Man Ray to see how the story will go. You know that Miller will begin to outdo Ray as an artist and that Ray won’t like it. You know this’ll end in tears.

Miller lived a long accomplished life after Man Ray. She ran a studio in New York. She saw Dachau. Her wartime experiences led to difficulties in later life with depression and (likely undiagnosed) PTSD. In The Bitter Taste of Victory, Lara Feigel’s history of the immediate aftermath of World War 2 in Europe, Feigel discusses Miller’s bathroom shot at 16 Prinzregentenplatz:

There is no simple message in Miller’s picture but by juxtaposing the clumsy brutality of her muddy boots with the pomp of the military leadership and the classical beauty both of the sculpture and of her own huddled and fragile naked figure, she was asking how these incongruous elements could have come together. The Nazi leadership had been famous for finding a place for art within the torture chamber and the battlefield. Already, there were frequent tales of the concentration camp commandants who went home from a day of gassing Jews to listen to Beethoven… By bringing the statue into the frame with Hitler, Miller was undermining the notion that art could be redemptive simply through its purity or detachment.

Scharer touches on this in her prologue, when Miller is living in the countryside in the 1960s. She loves cooking and hosts frequent dinner parties, but drinks so much in the kitchen that her banquets are often delayed until almost midnight. ‘She cannot stop the thoughts from coming,’ Scharer writes. ‘They lodge like bits of shrapnel in her brain and she never knows when something will bring one to the surface.’ It is a sympathetic portrait of a woman self medicating against mental distress. But this plus snatches of wartime memory is pretty much all we get of Miller after Ray: and I think that’s a shame.

Perhaps I’m being too harsh though. If you want a love story I’d totally recommend The Age of Light, and the scenery and people of Paris are beautifully rendered. There is also an increase in tempo towards the end of the book, and a growing sense of liberty. After completing an artwork, ‘Lee opens another bottle of wine and watches all four films, projected on the back wall of the studio, as she drinks straight from the bottle, the wine going down her throat in what feels like one uninterrupted swallow. When the last film slips loose of the reel at the end, Lee sits in the sudden hot bright light of the projector, listening to the tock tock tock tock as the film goes around the reel, and she feels overwhelmingly, drunkenly proud.’ Scharer’s novel is about sharing a life, but the lesson from it is what the poet Claude tells Miller, very early on: travel only at the prow of yourself.

2016 And All That

March 5, 2019

A curiosity of political writing is the panoply of small sites that have sprung up outside traditional UK media, offering regular blogs with a particular political slant and names you half recognise. This week we’re looking at ‘Unherd’ which examines current events from an angle of the communitarian left and right.

You might have heard on the grown up news that the Labour Party has (provisionally and reluctantly and at this very late stage) backed a second referendum on Brexit – and that has not gone down very well with the fellows at Unherd. Their always entertaining contributor Paul Embery has written a polemic against any such new referendum. Even among a political movement known for zealotry, Embery’s partisanship stands out.

Embery laments that ‘the post-referendum debate among Westminster politicians and the commentariat has missed the mark spectacularly by focusing almost exclusively on the dry, technical issues of Brexit: the Single Market and Customs Union, the Irish border backstop, and so on’ – you know, the boring, technocratic shit that keeps food on the supermarket shelves, and gunsmoke off the breeze. Embery is more of a Brexit purist, perhaps Brexit aesthete.

In 2015, five in six MPs voted to hold a referendum on membership of the EU. Then, a year later, in the biggest democratic exercise ever witnessed in our nation’s history, more than 33 million people went to the polls and a majority voted for secession. They didn’t vote to leave only with a divorce agreement that the EU was willing to approve. No, the question on the ballot paper was simple: remain or leave.

For Embery, democracy began in 2016. And that’s where it ends, apparently. For the second referendum in Brexit mythos is an establishment ruse to subvert popular sovereignty. Embery warns: ‘For as the gilet jaunes have shown across the Channel, if you chip away enough at people’s faith in the democratic process and their ability to hold their political leaders to account, then from behind that silence a mighty roar will eventually emerge.’ (The stirring Shelleyan rhetoric clashes badly with the example of the gilet jaunes: a couple of weeks ago the brave boys of Paris had to be restrained by police after bullying an elderly Jewish philosopher on one of their demos.)

Here is the problem. It has now been more than three years since the referendum. If Brexit were a government it’d be past the mid terms. It would have faced local and by elections. The action has become boring. (It is an irony of the Brexit vote that what was supposed to lead to one big decisive outcome instead gives us endless process.) Most people don’t have fixed and unchangeable views. Most people have moved on. And was 2016 such a huge moment? I don’t recall the street parties.

And think on the fundamental things that will not change. We are next to Europe. We had a relationship with Europe before the EU, we will always have that even if the EU falls over completely as it periodically threatens to do. If we are going to leave it is best to sort out some kind of trading relationship rather than go out on WTO rules. WTO rules may be survivable. Sure, we might run out of produce, and medical supplies, and god knows what else.

Let’s say no deal is survivable. It may not create the communitarian paradise that Unherd writers dream of. Polly Toynbee, speaking with postwar austerity historian David Kynaston, said that: ‘Even in a supposedly collectivist decade, people were strongly individualist… They welcomed the NHS as ‘good for me’, but reading mass observation archives, [Kynaston] detected no widespread New Jerusalem sentiment.’ Quite so. In times of privation people think to me and mine. As so often, the collective revolution leads to grasping selfish survivalism.

‘These things are important of course,’ Embery says, ‘but no-one in power has yet bothered to initiate a serious discussion about what drove so many of their fellow citizens to vote Leave in the first place – defining issues such as community, identity, democracy and belonging.’ The question here really is, what stopped you? Brexit for good or ill was an opportunity to find out what kind of country we wanted to be. We could have had a written constitution, a First Amendment, an elected senate by the year 2017. Instead it has been a comedy of lowered expectations and an epic of wasted time. And still, Embery and his Brexit purists stay in referendum day, fixed in amber, trapped in the golden moment and lost content.

The People’s Vote is still more of an idea than a reality. Embery is the latest of numerous commentators in political and journalist circles to warn against it. I’m not convinced about a second referendum but this to me seems a reasonable argument for having one.

Gonzo or Go Home

March 2, 2019

Standpoint magazine has an interesting little feature where the writers take political or cultural figures of great reputations and then knock them down. It’s fun to read although the cynical part of me says that the feature’s really there to generate clicks from outraged fanboys. This week Oliver Wiseman has taken on Hunter S Thompson, and as I’m very much an ageing HST fanboy, I will bite.

Wiseman’s critique gets a lot of things right. Thompson was a degenerate, a fabulist who often missed the story or plainly made stuff up, a talented man who was swallowed into his own narcissistic mythos. There were plenty better journalists of the day who were ignored. Joan Didion and Michael Kerr could probably tell you more about the crazy times of the American midcentury than HST.

But fanboys love the person, not the prose. As Wiseman writes:

‘Four Bloody Marys, two grapefruits, a pot of coffee, Rangoon crêpes, a half-pound of either sausage, bacon, or corned-beef hash with diced chilies, a Spanish omelette or eggs Benedict, a quart of milk, a chopped lemon for random seasoning, and something like a slice of keylime pie, two margaritas and six lines of the best cocaine for dessert.’

All of which should be enjoyed alone, ‘outside in the warmth of a hot sun, and preferably stone naked’.

To a certain man of a certain age — me in my late teens, to be specific — there was something heroic about the way Hunter S. Thompson liked to start the day.

Be careful who you pretend to be, said wise Kurt Vonnegut, and perhaps HST should have taken this advice to heart. Reading the correspondence I was surprised by how much time Thompson spent at home in Owl Farm. Alcoholic artists like to get hammered alone. Other people tend to get in the way of the visions. Perhaps HST shot himself because he knew he’d come to the end of his visions. No more fun, indeed.

And yet, and yet, the fanboy part of me keeps bobbing up and shouting…

Have a look at a broadsheet feature or op-ed. Notice how overmannered and overwritten and partisan and twee and insufferable the writing is. How obsessed the writers are with clicks and culture wars. It is near a trial to read. For all the respect I have for the British press, I know there are great British journalists out there, there are probably more than they have ever been but they are still in the minority.

Go from there to the Daily Beast, Longreads, or Deadspin, and you will find the experience like a warm bath and brandy after cutting your way through miles of brambles. It is just so refreshing to read journalists who write clearly and without fear. St Louis writer Sarah Kendzior, whose View From Flyover Country I’m currently enjoying, has the same quality.

I’m not saying that American journalism is better than British journalism. But, well, there’s a reason there’s a Mueller investigation in the States and no equivalent over here. There’s a reason Donald Trump hates and fears the press, while British politicians fear only their political rivals. The contrast holds even in my own interest of fiction and criticism. The biggest story in Anglo-American publishing this year, the Dan Mallory scandal, was broken by the New Yorker. It could not and would not have been published in a UK publication.

Americans don’t necessarily have a stronger tradition of newspapership than we do but they know how better to draw on it.

And part of that tradition includes degenerate assholes like HST.

On the ten year anniversary of the Beast, editor Noah Shachtman wrote:

The world is so dark so often that a staid recitation of the day’s horrors will cause audiences to turn the news off altogether. Journalism today has to paint in bright colors, have a sense of wit, and give up any attachments to the powerful. It’s gonzo or go home.

Go gonzo or go home. What an editor. What a sensibility.

The Beast has also drawn from English traditions as well, the name is of course from Waugh’s Scoop, a satire of the days when it was easier to make living as a newspaperman. These days it is not so easy. I agree with the plaintive appeals to support British journalism, I agree with paywalls, I want journalists to have good incomes and job security and I understand that all this costs.

But readers can’t do everything. Writers have to write better.

And writing better requires you to read, to enjoy, and to draw on tradition. Fanboyism rarely makes for great writing. But it can provide the spark that leads eventually to great writing. We get older, we put away childish things: we do not burn them.

And wouldn’t it be fun to see Hunter Thompson back from the dead and covering the Trump administration?

Now that would bring in subscriptions.

Guest House Inferno

February 19, 2019

If the world is going to end, the best place to be is in a Swiss hotel. That is the impression you get from Hanna Jameson’s The Last. American historian Jon Keller is staying in L’Hôtel Sixième when nuclear attacks hit Washington, New York, and other cities across the world. Apocalypse novels can be strangely coy about the causes and impact of the apocalypse. Safe in the hotel and surrounded by forests, the world-altering events of the outside world are at first limited to headlines and the strange new shades of the sunsets. It’s a while before anyone thinks to go outside to scout for food, let alone try to locate other survivors.

Which is not to say The Last doesn’t compel. Jon is trapped with a couple of dozen people with whom he has little in common, they are running out of food, and afraid to drink the water. Jameson captures the feeling of claustrophobia and panic. Guests lose themselves in drink and drugs and random hookups. A man takes a deliberate overdose. With only one doctor in the crew and little practical skills, it seems like the Sixième guests won’t last long. And then Jon finds the body of a child – murdered, perhaps before the apocalypse.

Jon is the novel’s big weakness. He comes off as a vacillating milquetoast. He hews to sociological platitudes but his willingness to take part in executions makes you wonder how deep his liberal principles really go. The more we find out about him, the less you like, and the more you wonder what else he’s not telling us. It’s a surprise that Jameson chose to tell her story through such a bore. But his desolation and anguish are very real, as is his fear for his wife and children, way back in the US. And Jameson captures also the feeling that the world is heading somewhere wrong:

Now I felt it, the crushing existential weight of the loss. Commutes, and calling your representatives over something you saw on TV, reading news articles online, all of them getting progressively worse, going to march after march amid the creeping sensation that nothing was changing, that governments weren’t scared and people were nowhere near as scared as it should be, spending day after day at work talking about politicians we hated and battles we were losing, worrying about our future and whether your children would have one, and then it was all gone.

At least Jon gets to meet more interesting people – Peter the dyspeptic German child psychologist, Adam the young boozehound and Tomi, Jon’s on and off girlfriend – Tomi is a fellow American but is everything Jon is not, clear headed, plain spoken and stylish. There’s a bone of contention between the guests as to who voted for the disaster president who began the nuclear war and it makes you think of how much of the nuclear winter will be spent bickering over the ruins.

Jameson deepens the sense of claustrophobic horror by giving the hotel a spooky backstory and the guests elements of dark mysteries in their own lives. The hotel’s mystery builds to an unexpected conclusion but for me it’s the endpapers and the last passage of Jon’s narration that gives this novel its payoff. The Swiss landscape of chalet and forest suddenly feels like an impassible tundra in Jameson’s hands.