Half A World

August 10, 2019

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora is a space odyssey with a difference. Generations of people live in a craft the size of a city. As the founding pioneers die out and the ship moves through deep space without finding anything of interest, the younger spacefarers become disillusioned with this whole exercise and turn the craft around for home. On return to terra firma, the cosmonauts find themselves denounced by the scientific establishment – to them they are quitters and cowards. But the idealism and wisdom is with the ones who quit. Why build spaceships instead of cleaning up the environmental mess of our home planet? If we find another habitable planet wouldn’t we just ruin that one like we ruined Earth? Robinson quotes the poet Constantin P Cavafy:

New lands you will not find, you will not find other seas.

The city will follow you. You will roam the same

streets. And you will age in the same neighborhoods;

in these same houses you will grow gray.

Always you will arrive in this city. To another land – do not hope –

there is no ship for you, there is no road.

As you have ruined your life here

in this little corner, you have destroyed it in the whole world.

Or as Freya puts it in the novel: Wherever you go, there you are.

Iris Cohen is exhausted and sad and bored. She works in a digital marketing job she doesn’t understand, drinks too much, falls in and out of meaningless relationships and struggles with a traumatic past. Salvation appears in a reality TV show set on the planet Nyx, recently discovered through a wormhole in the Pacific Ocean. Nyx offers a new life – a chance, its founder says ‘to leave all that behind: the emails, the messages, the notifications, the constant communication with people you hardly know. Instead, you’re going to enjoy a closer connection with the people and the world around you.’ Millions apply for Life on Nyx: Iris works her way through AI conducted interviews to the final few thousand, who live in a self sustaining biome on the new planet, farming, exercise, talking and procreating. Someone asks what Iris did for a living back on earth.

‘I was a digital innovation architect.’ She covered her face, laughing with delight at how far away she was from her old life.

‘What does that even mean?’ said Hans.

‘Honestly, I don’t know.’

‘It doesn’t mean anything,’ said Elizabeth. ‘None of it did.’

There’s one catch – the door is one way and there’s no coming back. Iris makes her decision subconsciously and by increments. There’s a wonderful scene where Iris wanders through London at night:

Iris carried on walking down a residential road, where a fox casually crossed her path, then past Hackney Downs. She crossed through Dalston, where the shops were shut, though some still shone their neon lights. The sound of cars kept her company. Usually, whenever she walked alone, she would listen to music or a podcast, but now she just listened to the world. Each bird sang in its own particular pattern. It was amazing that they chose to live there, in the city, and not in a nice green field. They were used to it, like Iris.

She is saying goodbye to the city. Everyone knows it. Everyone in Iris’s life tells her not to leave. Even the Nyx panels give her every chance to pull out. They even track down the love of Iris’s youth – but Iris again is disillusioned with the present self of the woman she fell for. ‘On another planet, in another universe, we’re still kids and it’s summer, and it always will be. That was the planet she wanted to go to.’

It’s hard to write about Everything You Ever Wanted without spoilers, but to convey a sense of this remarkable novel I must at least hint at them. Nyx in itself doesn’t seem lethal. Outside the biomes there are birds, insects, even a great lake. One lesson of the novel is that no one can guarantee that you will always be looked after. Seven years in, the colony starts running out of food and resources. Despite this scarcity, the Nyxians do not turn on each other. Relations remain friendly and supportive. One aspect of the utopia holds.

Still, the last hundred pages are not an easy read. There is an enduring and spooky sadness almost unbearable in its intensity, that leaves the reader waiting on a deus es machina that – spoiler alert – never comes. Everyone on Nyx ends up missing aspects of their home planet – Iris has several chapters devoted to lists of commonplace delights, to cheeseburgers, painkillers, bacon and eggs, chocolate, pigeons, foxes, makeup, the tubes, even work and ‘the moment on Friday evening when she would turn off her computer and already feel the glow of alcohol in her chest.’

I could mention – with my political head on – that the worst ideological movements then and now are the ones that think of humanity or nations as having some authentic self that civilisation just gets in the way of. Rivers Solomon‘s novel An Unkindness of Ghosts takes this on with her story of a spaceship run by white supremacists heading for some mythical Aryan paradise. The Nyxians don’t go anywhere near that far and the lessons are not for Iris alone.

What Iris discovers is that the clutter of modern life isn’t some white noise that gets in the way of the true essence of humanity – the clutter is the humanity. Luiza Sauma has written a profound and beautiful novel about our irrational desire for a meaningful existence. Wherever you go, there you are.

And yet there’s no sense that Sauma is lecturing us. Humans are risk takers and it’s our nature to go on mad quests, whatever the cost. To quote Kim Stanley Robinson again: ‘a consciousness that cannot discern a meaning in existence is in trouble, very deep trouble, for at that point there is no organizing principle, no end to the halting problems, no reason to live, no love to be found. No: meaning is the hard problem.’ It certainly is and Sauma makes an attempt at solving it as brave and stylish as anything you’re likely to read in fiction.

Captive States

August 3, 2019

(Spoilers for everything)

On a corrections bus travelling to begin her double-life sentence, Rachel Kushner’s protagonist Romy Hall reflects on her fate. ‘I was assigned a public defender. We were all hopeful things would go differently. They did not go differently. They went this way.’ Kushner’s novel The Mars Room follows Hall into a Central Valley woman’s correctional where guards and bureaucrats constantly reinforce the fact things went this way: ‘your situation is due one hundred per cent to choices you made and actions you took.’ Later, she considers this: ‘The lie of regret and of life gone off the rails. What rails. The life is the rails. It is its own rails and it goes where it goes.’

The Mars Room is about bleak situations, but it’s not a bleak novel. It’s not a grind.

I watched the final of Orange is the New Black this week. ONTB shares with Kushner’s novel the trick of compelling but not miserabilist drama in reduced circumstances. It’s from Jenji Kohan who created Weeds, a comic drama about a suburban widow who sells dope to support her family – a lighter Breaking Bad, may it do ya. Weeds started off really well but later became too silly and surreal even for me.

ONTB has plenty of Kohan’s trademark quirkiness. There are big musical cues, weird sexual hijinks and absurd set pieces. It was also pretty baggy, with very long episodes that didn’t go anywhere. If you’re on series one or two, stick with it though, because there is plotting, you just don’t see it until much later. Myles McNutt at the AV club complains about the wonky timeline but for me Kohan does a masterful job of conveying six years of gradual change in what’s supposed to be an eighteen-month period.

ONTB is about the minimum security Litchfield federal prison that’s run reasonably well but not perfectly. The authorities sell out to a corporation, which brings in a new head guard: the foul Desi Piscatella. He has been kicked out of the male system for burning an inmate to death and brings his ironfist ethos to Litchfield – notwithstanding that the prisoners there are mostly harmless kooks and drug dealers. Piscatella’s bullying leads to the death of the well liked inmate Poussey Washington, which in turn provokes a riot, after which the prisoners are relocated to the maximum security facility down the road. The old Litchfield is turned into an ICE detention centre.

‘This isn’t Oz,’ a guard tells Piper Chapman on her first day in. And it’s not. There are few murders or violent episodes. Up until end series four, you’re basically watching a gentle comedy set behind bars. (An interesting comparison with Tom Fontana’s show is how they establish what each character’s in for: while the crime flashbacks in Oz last seconds – men who blow their lives away in one impulsive moment – ONTB spreads a single inmate’s memories over whole episodes, illustrating that fate can be one decisive act or more usually a series of slips and bad decisions.)

It is once the inmates transfer to max, that things get serious. Facing far longer sentences for their participation in the riot, the prisoners cave. Nicky sells out her mentor. Daya turns drug baron. Even tough old Frieda Berlin crumbles. There’s a grim scene where senior prison officers and politicians plan their riot response, focused on a whiteboard with boxes labelled ‘LIFE’, ‘LIFE’, ’10 YEARS’ – they already know the punishments, they just need to find individuals to fit them. It is up to inmates to deal themselves out.

The barter of intel and sentence time is the contradiction in Western justice. Commit a crime and you will be punished – unless you have something to sell. UCL professor Alexandra Natapoff‘s exceptional book Snitching details the absurdity of a deal system that lets serious criminals loose to kill, sell drugs and god knows what else, because they have been basically been put on state payroll. She quotes one court: ‘[n]ever has it been more true that it is now that a criminal charged with a serious crime understands that a fast and easy way out of trouble with the law is… to cut a deal at someone else’s expense.’ Note the cheers from the public gallery when Tasha (‘Taystee’) Jefferson pleads not guilty to killing Piscatella, rather than admitting to a crime she didn’t do which would draw a lighter sentence.

There is a dark, hilarious scene in series four where warden Caputo’s girlfriend, corporate exec Linda, takes him to a prison convention called ‘Correcticon’. As Kathryn Van Arendonk wrote in her recap at the time:

It’s hard to resist the urge to just list every little detail of CorrectiCon. It’s shiveringly well-tuned, hitting notes that rest on the delicate edge between humor and outrage. On one side of the aisle, a booth sells menstrual cups for women’s prisons. It’s a product that might be seriously useful for Litchfield, which has such a dramatic tampon shortage that one inmate tries to use a disposable plastic cup meant for dispensing medicine. On the other side of the exhibit hall, a vendor dressed as an inmate distributes ‘prison slop — fully prepared,’ and Caputo is appalled. ‘Ugh, I have enough of that in my life,’ he tells Linda. ‘It’s just for fun, silly!’ she replies. ‘I think it’s ice cream.’

In one scene the nature of the prison industrial complex is exposed. Prisons are big business and also big job creation – jobs for wardens, guards and clerks, and a big economic lift for the communities where the prison industry chooses to build. The boom in migration detention centres and the atrocities along the Amexican border are just an extension of this Keynesian pump-priming. If we do a deal with Trump’s America, the fate of the NHS may be the least of our worries. Communitarianism defines itself by who is excluded or detained, and there is jobs and money in exclusion and detention.

OTNB critiques tend to focus on privilege and intersectionality. That’s part of it of course: in the last episode of season four we learn that the guard who kills Poussey was as a young man let off for the same possession charge that got Poussey six years – and that, during a night out in New York, Poussey encountered her killer in passing. (There is also another subtle, telling scene when Suzanne Warren, deprived of medication, has a psychotic freakout in a guard’s office with a ‘NO STIGMA’ mental health poster on the wall.)

Piper Chapman, by contrast, benefits from white privilege and class privilege. Like Tobias Beecher in Oz, she represents the viewer and her character is a hook for the show to introduce less privileged characters and tell their stories. But while Beecher learned both compassion and self reliance in Oz, Piper takes her sense of entitlement into the prison and leaves with it intact. She is released at the end of series six, while Taystee faces life without in total innocence. But the social justice warrior critique only goes so far. Piper is human, we recognise her mistakes and feel for her when she is released only to be shunned by her family and friends: the virtue-signalling liberals of her peer group see her as a novelty at best and inconvenience at worst.

What the show does more than this is bring home the arbitrary and transitory nature of prison experience. Much loved characters are transferred, ghosted out or disappear for no clear reason. It is the blur of boundaries between free and not, citizen and not, American and not. Blanca and Maritza have every right to citizenship but are ‘unAmericanised’ by the border state. There is a very moving scene in the final series where deportees on a plane literally fade away, one by one – as Pennsatucky does outside the prison gates. The communitarian ideology depends on disappearing people, and that’s put in contrast with the genuine connections made by people on the inmates – broken people who connect, and in connecting manage to make each other a little less broken. That’s something real, and it’s freedom, of a kind.

Great Expectation

July 24, 2019

Looking back at her hard living past, singer Florence Welch writes in Vogue:

I wonder if my young self would be horrified at my Friday nights now: eating pasta and watching TV with someone who is nice to me. Would she think me mundane? I have certainly had journalists bemoan to me ‘the lack of rock stars behaving like rock stars’, but hedonism never gave me the freedom I desired. And I’m no longer sure about the rock’n’roll behaviour often expected of artists. Too many talented people have died, and the world feels too fragile to be swigging champagne and flicking the finger at it.

Most of the friends that I drank with have had to stop. They wash up one by one like driftwood, and we stand together on the shore in shocked relief. We cook, we talk, we work. People have started having children and going to bed early. And all the boring ‘grown-upness’ that we rejected then now seems somehow rebellious.

The characters in Anna Hope’s Expectation might identify. While none of Hope’s three woman protagonists have the eventful past of Florence Welch, they face a similar dilemma. The book opens on an urban pastoral of the three close friends living out the tail end of their youth in London Fields. When we then fast forward to 2010, there’s a definite contracting of freedom and possibility. Life has become smaller, and dominated by young dreams that have turned into obsessions. Lissa aspires to Hollywood but makes do with commercials and community theatre, Hannah wants a child but can’t conceive, Cate has been priced out of London and is living a dull suburban life in the Home Counties.

It all sounds banal when I write it down but Hope writes so well that it works. You feel Hannah’s despair as she focuses every detail of her routine around the elusive miracle of childbirth: she measures out her life in ovulation circles instead of coffee spoons. She is the most well realised character, but all three convey something in common – the fraught feeling of life slipping away from you, taking you away with it to a place you’re not comfortable with. Your old houseshare has been flipped and carved and rented out at unimaginable prices, the legends of your youth grown old and driven out to the exurbs, the world changing in ways you don’t understand. To go back to Florence Welch one last time, it’s hard to get through the sea storm, but sometimes it’s harder once you’ve actually reached the shore – if you get a stretch that’s bare and rocky, with gulls wheeling through an overcast sky.

Not much happens for long reams of the book, but there’s no tiredness or ennui to Hope’s prose, it all feels terribly important while you’re reading it. Hope has an understated style that somehow carries and captures the moment. There is no false sentiment or artifice in Expectation. It feels real. It even sometimes feels numinous:

The woman speaks about the tomb, about how it was found on her father’s land, a mile or so from where she and her family live today. About the human remains that were found there – no skeletons, only jumbled bones, thousands upon thousands of them. About the eagle talons found in amongst them. About the theory that the bodies were left out to be eaten by the birds. Like the sky burials of Tibet. How only the clean bones were saved.

‘Excarnation,’ the woman says in her soft voice.

‘Excarnation,’ says Hannah, tasting it. A new word.

The action speeds up once you get to the last third of the book, but in its way it’s a supremely contemplative novel – the brisk progression of events seems to give you a faith in the natural processes of time and age and youth and death. Lissa and Hannah have a phrase that’s almost an injoke – this shit are what life withstands’. Expectation is a kind of Zen novel – one that goes about its work so subtly and well that you don’t realise you’re being entranced.

Also: Susan Osborne’s review available here

An Elephant in the Room

July 9, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Foster writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Love Song of Lina Wolff

July 6, 2019

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

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

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

… the long and arduous journey into another person.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With Hilarious Consequences

June 30, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bad Guy In Your MFA

June 16, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wellness Among the Ruins

June 11, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Song of the Outpost

June 3, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tomorrow Belongs To Me

May 19, 2019

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