Reach for the Dead: Tessa McWatt’s London

August 23, 2015

higheredLast October Amelia Gentleman wrote a long Guardian piece about an unexpected twist in our troubled economy: the rise of funeral poverty. With crema costs rising and funeral benefits flatlined, increasingly people find that they don’t enough money to give their loved ones a reasonable internment. Gentleman speaks to a woman who was quoted £2,300 by the Co-Op and ‘chose instead to buy a shroud online (£180) and arranged a transit van to take the body from the hospice to the crematorium.’ An ex railwayman only avoided the nine o’clock trot because ‘when he died, social workers found he was carrying his life savings of £500, which were used to pay for the more desirable slot.’

I thought of this piece when I read Tessa McWatt’s Higher Ed. It’s a London novel, and kind of a campus novel in a way, one with hardly any students in it. Higher Ed has a decent range of characters and a multiplex narrative: there’s some real insight, and the backdrop of city problems is reasonably evoked. But McWatt has a tendency to frontload. Her first chapter introduces us to Francine, a university QA professional in her early fifties. Francine barely gets a line of dialogue out before the interior monologue takes over and we get the full character backstory: US transplant, demonstrations at Penn State, disastrous relationship with an unreliable male. Higher Ed has many memorable moments but an air of frantic vagueness characterises its prose.

Except when it comes to death. Driving home from work Francine witnesses a man being struck and killed. Francine is haunted by the young man’s death and the prospect that someone else could be imprisoned for a tragedy she herself might have caused. Law student Olivia tracks down her lost father, who happens to be barely holding together a disintegrating council department responsible for interring the growing numbers of London’s unremarked dead – homeless, bankrupts, suicides, illegals, those for one reason or another are forgotten before they die. McWatt’s characters are preoccupied with restructures and downsizing: HR culture permeates everything and the threat of unemployment is never far from the surface. Higher Ed is brilliant on the bureaucratisation of work and life. England is full of people churning out action plans, person specs and five-year strategies but we can’t even bury our dead. ‘Not everything is measurable,’ protests a lecturer, fighting for his job. McWatt’s novel is a good attempt at quantifying these unmeasurables – even though few of us might be listening.

Beware the Friendly Stranger

August 21, 2015

At a time when most people are supposed to be turned off from politics there comes a surge of genuine popular enthusiasm for a certain politician. At first glance you would say that there was nothing particularly inspiring or distinctive about the politician. The politician had spent most of his life in trade unions and local government, then served as MP for 22 years of a North London liberal enclave which, despite its chatterati reputation, suffered from terrible poverty also. The politician was a career backbencher, voting against his party on hundreds of occasions: as a person by all accounts he is intelligent and compassionate, a 66-year old man in old shirts and a grey beard, the kind of quiet, brilliant fellow with a gentle voice you find in badly lit corridors of universities or council offices, measuring out his life in meetings and biros. No one thought this politician would ever become a serious contender, let alone frontrunner for the leader of the opposition party. But that is what has happened.

It’s not clear that the politician would even like to be Prime Minister someday. The politician was included on the ballot by other, more senior political figures who wanted a ‘broad debate’ and wanted to make the party more democratic, only when the politician began to accumulate mass support the senior figures backpedalled and said, oh actually, we didn’t want that broad a debate and actually, we didn’t want the party to be that fucking democratic. As I write data clerks are firing off exclusion letters to people who have registered mainly to vote for the politician.

But by then it was too late. The politician ignited something in a way that I hadn’t seen a politician do for a long time. The politician travels the country and addresses packed-out meetings full of people cheering for the politician. I go on social media and there are people I know, people I respect endorsing the politician, hashtags proliferate cheerleading the politician. I go down my local pub and there are regulars there debating the merits and electability of the politician. If you are in Islington tonight you can go and see the politician at a fundraiser featuring music, speeches and a ‘socialist magician’ (‘fits in nicely with Jeremy’s ideas about quantitative easing’). I even come across an anthology from up and coming poets, filled with paeans of praise to the politician.

The new thing is that the politician seems to be getting support from people who don’t normally get involved in politics or even vote – smart people, young people, renting people, the precariat, the creatives, the artists, the hipsters, the clued up working class, ordinary people in ordinary jobs, who have been told loud and clear by various governments and movements that, thanks, but we don’t need you.

I understand the weariness with dull, authoritarian machine politicians that have hectored the British electorate for twenty years, and made this country a more difficult place to live in. So I understand to some extent the excitement over this new politician, who is saying something a little different. But how different?

The politician has some policy ideas that make sense to me, and that would be the better choice for our society. Other policy ideas he has just seem silly. Let’s print money! Let’s reopen the mines! Fuck NATO! Which leads me to the politician’s foreign policy. Like many far left politicians he’s against ‘illegal wars’ and America and Israel. He also carries a lot of the standard, stinking far left baggage – appearances on propaganda channels owned by hostile foreign powers, links to Holocaust deniers, Islamist maniacs, 9/11 deniers, LaRouche conspiracy organisations. Such troubling alliances are well documented – the skeletons are out of this guy’s closet and dancing down the streets – but the politician barely deigns to address them. When he is directly challenged, the politician becomes aggressive and unhinged in a way that you wouldn’t expect such a gentle, caring man to be. Interviewers who question him are targeted with foul abuse on Twitter.

I can’t get past the politician’s apparent admiration for totalitarian nuts but for many of his supporters it doesn’t register. It’s a neoliberal lie. They’re running scared. Jeremy just happened to be in a room with these people, and coincidences do happen. And the far left’s love affair with the far right has been part of the political backdrop for so long. Its their culture. As Oliver Kamm wrote recently: ‘It’s no longer possible to assume that a declared progressive will defend free speech, secularism, women’s rights, homosexual equality, cosmopolitanism and the spread of scientific inquiry.’

As I say, among the lunatics there are good, smart people who have thrown their considerable energies and talents behind this politician. I would say to these people, my friends, good people: think again. Even grey haired men with gentle voices are susceptible to the lure of power and can justify all kinds of things in the name of the Worker’s Paradise. When this guy lets you down (and they always do) you will be disillusioned, you will turn off from a system that needs you but will break you if it gets the chance. All the meetings, rallies, demonstrations, fundraisers, articles, campaigns behind this one man – imagine if this energy had been thrown into our communities. We could help to feed the hungry and dispossessed in our society, we could challenge unjust laws, we could bring our empty houses up to code and get people living in them, we could revitalise deadbeat neighbourhoods, we could protect those among us who are targeted for speaking out, we could fight injustice for people who don’t have representation, we could help people to help themselves and to fight for themselves. All this you can get on board with no matter what your politics are. Just, please, don’t put your faith in this ageing prince of the 1980s left. How does the song go? Don’t get fooled again.


(Image by Twilldun)

Fun with Tumblr

August 11, 2015

As part of an ongoing effort to get myself at least into the early 2010s I have set up a tumblr page. It’s based on the often bizarre promo emails from self and indie publishers that I get asking me to review various surreal titles.

The link is here, I hope you enjoy it, I hope also to update it as more emails come in (currently around a half dozen weekly): if you are a reviewer who also gets sent crazy spam promo review emails, please feel free to submit your own posts.

Blood, Bombs and Rock and Roll

August 9, 2015

I’m late with this response to Giles Fraser’s piece last week. I certainly cannot equal the wit of my old Shiraz comrade Jim Denham, who describes Fraser as ‘a caricature comes true – or rather two caricatures, both old favourites from Private Eye: the Rev JC Flannel and Dave Spart.’

In it Fraser begins by complaining about the lack of respect shown to Church of England priests in general. ‘Under pressure not to ‘do God’,’ he explains, ‘the wet non-committal English clergyman became a figure of fun – at best, a local amateur social worker, and at worst, a social climbing hypocrite’ and traces this to the great secularist compromise of the Enlightenment: ‘If not from its inception, then certainly from the end of the English civil war, the big idea of the C of E was to prevent radicalisation – precisely the sort of radicalisation that led to religious people butchering each other throughout the 1630s and 40s.’ But the downside was that ‘God is defeated by religion. Indeed, one could even say that, for the English establishment, that is precisely the purpose of religion. They trap Him in boring services so that people won’t notice the revolution for which He is calling.’

I would have thought this a fair tradeoff, after all there’s not much nostalgia out there for medieval absolutism and witch burning, but Fraser laments the vicar’s drop in status. Maybe that’s just his perception of it though. To vary Stewart Lee’s joke about Ben Elton: it’s not that people don’t respect Christians, or Christianity – they just don’t respect Giles Fraser. His next para gives some insight into why that may be.

And then along comes Islam – and, thankfully, it disrupts this absurd game and refuses to play by the rules. Its practitioners want to talk about God, sex and politics rather than mortgages, school places and the latest Boden catalogue. And good for them. But David Cameron’s whole attack upon ‘non-violent extremism’, his upping the ante on the Prevent agenda, is an attempt to replay that clapped-out C of E strategy of stopping people talking about God in a way that might have social or political consequences. Cameron, of course, thinks of this sort of political God-talk as radical and extreme – which, by the standards of English dinner-party rules, it most certainly is. But had the Levellers of the 17th century not been radical or extreme, they would not have introduced England to democracy in the first place (something for which they were eventually rounded up and shot).

Where exactly to begin? Does Giles Fraser know so little history that he can’t make distinctions between radicals for democracy and the radicalism of the black hole? (I don’t recall the Levellers slaughtering people on beaches, although admittedly I do need to work on my theory.) Fraser ends on a petulant flourish: ‘I believe there is an authority greater than yours – one I would obey before I would obey the laws of this land. And if that makes me a dangerous extremist, Mr Cameron, then you probably ought to come over to south London and arrest me now.’

Probably the Prime Minister has better things to do than to personally arrest people who disagree with him. That said, there is a huge debate to be had about anti terror strategy. Do we set a watch on any provincial maniac even if they have committed no apparent offence? Do we bug children’s phones in case their parents spirit them away to a war zone? This is way above my expertise, maybe above Fraser’s as well. Fraser’s more interested in the passion. There he is, despairing of old maids and warm beer, and then – here comes Islamism, and it’s like Elvis crashing a tea-dance. Belief! Conviction! Wow!

How bored would you have to be to welcome a movement that beheads aid workers and treats women as slaves? Maybe Fraser just needs to get out more, and go to more interesting parties, ones with sex and politics on the agenda. He says, of course, that ‘I condemn absolutely any theology that calls for or encourages violence.’ But what we’re talking about here is a very dull, fundamentalist Wahhabi/Salafist variant of Islam, one to which hardly anybody subscribes. If Islamism didn’t create violence it would be a marginal issue in the UK, like Scientology or Mormonism. As it is, the only reason the British are talking about Islamism is because Islamists are killing people… albeit mainly Muslims in developing countries. Maybe next time Fraser goes to the migrant camp church in Calais he should listen to some Syrian or Iraqi asylum seekers and discover exactly what it is they’re running from.

So despite Fraser’s disclaimer, maybe it’s not the sex, politics and God that attracts him – maybe it’s that buzz, the thrill of the abyss, blood and bombs and rock and roll. He wouldn’t be the first. Fuck him if that’s how he feels. As for the dull bourgeois civilisation he criticises, well, it’s not ideal, but most of us seem to get along. As Kent Brockman said on The Simpsons, you’ll forgive me if I keep my old Pontiac.

Notting Hill Essays

August 3, 2015

I am surprised and delighted to learn that I have been longlisted for the Notting Hill Essay Prize. The longlisted essay is my long piece on Russell Brand.

The shortlist is out in a few weeks. Wish me luck!

Also: my review of some great new US fiction, Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life, now available at Shiny.

In Arcadia Picasso

July 9, 2015

In a winter’s night of Paris a Spanish artist named Carlos Casagemas announces a goodbye dinner at the Brasserie de L’Hippodrome. He has been in love with the model Germaine Pichot, but she rejects him: ‘He started shouting, and she called him impotent in front of everyone… He turned green and ran.’ Pichot attends the dinner, and ‘dug up her real husband for the occasion.’ The young man gets up to make a speech. ‘But instead of a sheaf of notes, he pulls out a revolver.’ Points it at Germaine. ‘Now you’ll get yours.’ Bang. And turns the gun on himself. ‘And I’ll get mine.’ Blam.

Such was Paris in 1901. ‘To be young in Montmartre in 1900 was to know cruelty, violence, madness,’ remembers Fernande Olivier in Birmant and Oubrerie’s comic biography. ‘In this filth, this slum where a band of ragged immigrants in rags invented modern art’. She continues: ‘Picasso loved me. Picasso painted me. He always wanted to erase me from sight… Instead, he made me eternal.’ Shuffling along the streets today – we see them through her eyes, a jarring collage of tourist pastels – she soars into the sky. She remembers herself at seventeen: ‘perched in a tree, being forced to marry a man I didn’t want.’ Birmant and Oubrerie give us a great juxtaposition of yearning here – the old woman looking down on her former self who is herself gazing out beyond the trees to the lights of the city.

Pablo is written like a novel rather than biography, exploring the young Picasso’s life and his development as an artist throughout the 1900s. Like many art histories though, it’s collated into ‘periods’: the passages of his life following the suicide of his troubled friend Casagemas are rendered in deep aqua and turquoise shades, rain, shadows, clouds, night. Art shows and functions are done in royal scarlet pixels. During his ‘African period’ Picasso sees ‘Iberian heads, his totems from Gósol’ streaming through the air like birds, and a black-red shaft shoots out of his eyes with the legend I SEE ALL.

It’s rare that the pointed surrealism for which Picasso is known penetrates the artwork of the comic. Characters are bright and distinctive and they speak in easy, accessible speech bubbles. There are portraits of kindly, tragic soothsayer Max Jacobs – Jacobs took Picasso in when he had nowhere to go, and they slept on the bed in shifts. Gertrude Stein appears as an amazing old battleaxe. No one seems to have any money but there’s lots of fun and parties. Young women earn by sitting languorously in front of canvas. A friend of Pablo’s quotes a Catalan proverb, translating as ‘When you want to fuck, fuck!’

But when Pablo and Fernande take opium together Fernande finds herself swirling through an underwater sky as a maenad with dilated pupils. An elephant appears in the Montmartre streets for absolutely no reason. Pablo dreams of a skeleton in a little girl’s dress, complete with pigtails, shouting ‘Papa! Papa! Pablo won’t come die with me!’ Another skeleton with the body of Germaine Pichot straddles him naked while Carlos shoots himself again in the background. Picasso’s obvious guilt (his little sister Conchita died of diphtheria at age seven) leads him to the truth F Scott Fitzgerald was busy discovering on the other side of the Atlantic: et in arcadia ego, beauty is not alone in the garden, death is waiting there too. ‘That we may fear our enemy no more,’ Pablo vows, ‘let us sculpt our worst nightmare.’

For a lay reader like me who’s ignorant of visual art Pablo is a fantastic introduction to the man and his work. But it is not about art so much as the effect art has upon the artist. The manic glazed look in Picasso’s eyes near follows you out of the room and down the street. And Birmant and Oubrerie are so good at the texture of life, the shades, ink and vellum of city streets and rooms. Their book captures what Fernande recalls: ‘I still remember the smell: a mixture of wet dog, oil and tobacco… the smell of work.’


Bird and Book: The Practical Magic of Strange and Norrell

June 25, 2015

Consider, if you will, a man who sits in his library day after day; a small man of no particular personal attractions. His book is on the table before him. A fresh supply of pens, a knife to cut new nibs, ink, paper, notebooks – all is conveniently to hand. There is always a fire in the room – he cannot do without a fire, he feels the cold. The room changes with the season: he does not… He meets his neighbours twice or thrice a quarter – for this is England where a man’s neighbours will never suffer him to live entirely bereft of society, let him be as dry and sour-faced as he may. They pay him visits, leave their cards with his servants, invite him to dine or to dance at assembly-balls. Their intentions are largely charitable – they have a notion that it is bad for a man to be always alone – but they also have some curiosity to discover whether he has changed at all since they last saw him. He has not. He has nothing to say to them and is considered the dullest man in Yorkshire.

I haven’t watched primetime UK drama for years. Part of the reason is TV here doesn’t give a story room to breathe. Unlike US drama which can afford a leisurely thirteen-ep slowburn, budget obsessed BBC and ITV execs have to condense complex narrative down into two or three episodes and for me it just doesn’t work.

I started watching the adaptation of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell a few weeks ago, expecting it to be terrible. The show won’t win over anyone who didn’t love the book (readers of Strange and Norrell either burn through its thousand pages enchanted, or fall at the first footnote) but the producers have done a pretty good job. Susannah Clarke’s narrative gets a whole seven episodes to unfold – for the BBC, that’s like The Wire. The casting is inspired: Enzo Cilenti is a wise and sinister Childermass, Charlotte Riley a witty and stunning Arabella, Vincent Franklin a wonderful Drawlight, Paul Kaye a deranged Vinculus. Ronan Vibert is possibly the best screen Wellington since Stephen Fry. Eddie Marsan has made a career of playing disturbed losers (cf his unhinged driving instructor in Happy Go Lucky) but, complete with a dour, fey North Yorks accent, he’s Mr Norrell to the life.

Clarke’s novel is set in a Victorian England that is like our own. But her society is haunted by a romantic medieval past of Aureate magicians ruled by the lord of the North, the Raven King. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, this English magic has gone from the land. It is only remembered by a York society who ‘met upon the third Wednesday of every month and read each other long, dull papers upon the history of English magic.’ The Society are not real magicians, but theoretical magicians: ‘which is to say they had never harmed any one by magic – nor ever done any one the slightest good. In fact, to own the truth, not one of these magicians had ever cast the smallest spell, nor by magic caused one leaf to tremble upon a tree, made one mote of dust to alter its course or changed a single hair upon any one’s head.’

To look at Mr Norrell – particularly from Clarke’s lovely and succinct description of him, quoted at the beginning of this piece – you would think that he is another one of these purely theoretical magicians. He’s dull, he gets ill easily, he hates to travel, he has no wife, no family, he is awkward, all he does is sit and read. ‘I do not know the world,’ he admits. But when the York Society go to visit Mr Norrell, curious about his library, he tells them: ‘Magic is not ended in England. I myself am quite a tolerable practical magician.’

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is set in the Victorian age. It has a Victorian narration, complete with period-style authorial comment, footnotes, references, capitalisations and delightful little archaisms – chuse, sopha, surprize, Buonaparte, Soho-square. (Neil Gaiman is surely right that the narrator ‘is not, I am convinced, Clarke, but a character in her own right, writing her book closer to Strange and Norrell’s time than our own.’) Today the Victorians are characterised, even stereotyped, as repressed – crazy with morality and hoarding unspeakable desires. Yet they also built an empire and invented numerous interesting machines.

Norrell is certainly withdrawn and repressed but he does want to do things. He does actual magic. He wants to use his magical skills to win the war against France. But the first London politician that he meets – the Foreign Secretary, Sir Walter Pole – tells him straight out: ‘Magic is not respectable, sir.[‘]

The Government cannot meddle with such things. Even this innocent little chat that you and I have had today, is likely to cause us a little embarrassment when people get to hear of it. Frankly, Mr Norrell, had I understood better what you were intending to propose today, I would not have agreed to meet you.

The ministers are soon talked round and Mr Norrell is installed as the Nation’s renowned magician: given expensive commissions, hosted in fashionable salons, the connected name of English magic. (At parties guests are ‘continually delighted’ by such Norrellite repartee as: ‘I do not know whom you mean,’ ‘I have not had the pleasure of that gentleman’s acquaintance,’ ‘I have never been to the place you mention.’) Norrell believes passionately in wisdom derived from books, and like many intellectuals, he is also a censor. He wants the magic all to himself. Norrell himself can never finish a piece of writing. But he takes books out of circulation, he closes down magician schools and societies, he’s a hoarder and destroyer of knowledge. He even proposes special courts to execute deviators from Norrellite magic. This is another great para from the novel, on Norrell’s established periodical:

There is not much to interest the serious student of magic in the early issues and the only entertainment to be got from them is contained in several articles in which Portishead attacks on Mr Norrell’s behalf: gentleman-magicians; lady-magicians; street-magicians; vagabond-magicians; child-prodigy-magicians; the Learned Society of York Magicians; the Learned Society of Manchester Magicians; learned societies of magicians in general; any other magicians whatsoever.

Naturally, Jonathan Strange is everything Norrell is not. Strange is young, witty, handsome, sociable, married, courageous, generous, open minded, a traveller and a man of action. His TV actor Bertie Carvel looks like the diffident English gentleman from central casting, but Carvel handles Strange’s arc well, taking the character from landed fop to battle-fevered veteran to the grieving, wandering Byronic magician on the edge. Where Norrell wants to excise the Raven King from history, Strange is attracted to the King of the North and to the otherlands beyond respectable reality.

Constantly threatening to break through the structure of this Regency novel is Clarke’s Faerie alterworld. It’s a world of constant action and movement: balls, dances, murders, battles, processions, executions. The Faerie dreamscape is adamantine, profound and tempting – even Norrell is drawn by it, it’s his deal with Faerie’s playful devil, the ‘gentleman with thistle-down hair’ that brings Sidhe unreality crashing in. At first these weird legends surface in the footnotes, then rise to disrupt the main narrative. Scenes of towering bridges and shining rushing water and women in black dresses walking high and radiant on the ridges of the moors. Stones and skies and rivers pulse with warm life. Swallowing his tincture of madness, Strange has this vision:

Everything he thought before, everything he knew, everything he had been was swept away in a great flood of confused emotion and sensation. The world was made again in flame-like colours that were impossible to bear. It was shot through with new fears, new desires, new hatreds.

Like a dream, Faerie has no coherence, no discipline. Characters kidnapped into its decadence find its ceaseless celebrations dreary. Lady Pole and the butler Stephen Black are both held under the gentleman’s enchantment for most of the story, periodically yanked into its eldritch mansions without warning and at the gentleman’s whim. Whenever they try to explain their plight to people in the real world, all that comes out are nonsense stories – long, run-on tales of metamorphosis and serendipity, the very antithesis of the Victorian novel. (The shy academic magician Mr Segundus finally manages to break this enchantment by decoding the nonsense stories with a book of childhood faerie stories.)

This is all full on genre fiction, but still the postcolonial student could have a field day with Strange and Norrell. Both men are landed aristocrats who have inherited their wealth. There are rumours of serf farms and slave colonies – there is, in Orwell’s classic phrase, a deep conspiracy of silence about the source of the family income. Mr Norrell’s henchmen are Lascelles and Drawlight, urban dandies of cruel wit and precarious fortune, the antecedents of today’s Shoreditch hipsters. Both are selfish and ruthless men who come to terrible ends. The chief servants, Childermass and Stephen Black, are devoted to their respective masters. But both quietly rage against a society run as racial and class-based apartheid. If you wanted to be really intellectual you could frame the argument as Norrellite rationalist pragmatism versus Strange’s romantic egalitarianism.

For me though, and foremost, Strange and Norrell is a story about the gulf between thought and action… perhaps between desire and action. The artist, the intellectual, the writer and the reader all contain a Norrellite and a Strangeite personality. There’s the scholarly man who wants to sit in his library all day and the wild romantic who wants to plunge, madly, into other worlds. There is a theoretical magic and a practical magic. Writing too is a kind of practical magic.


(Image: BBC)

The Elusive Professor Hunt

June 20, 2015

Be taught by this to speak with moderation

Of places where, with decent application

One gets a good, sound, middle-class education.

– Hilaire Belloc, ‘A Moral Alphabet’

There’s been some great comment about the Tim Hunt scandal this week. I’d particularly recommend Professor David Colquhoun’s article, plus this interesting series of tweets from Michael Hendricks – it’s amazing what can be done with longform Twitter these days. What do I think about Tim Hunt? My first thoughts are that this is a very British affair. And I really don’t like the very British culture of banning stuff and demanding that people lose their jobs because they have said something stupid. It’s very high school particularly in the dance of ostracisation and the smug contempt directed at people who don’t know the rules. I would be appalled if this was a young man, maybe with a family, who lost his livelihood and career because he expressed a stupid opinion.

But Tim Hunt is not a young man is he? He is 72 years old, a distinguished professor and a Nobel laureate. A lot of the backlash, the people who have said that Professor Hunt is the victim of a ‘witchhunt’ (in Britain any rigorous and sustained criticism constitutes a ‘witchhunt’) seems to come from this argument to authority: look at this man! He has been a scientist since before you were born! Where’s the deference! Where’s your respect?

But in Britain deference covers a multitude of sins. In Simon Danczuk’s excellent Smile for the Camera, his book about the Cyril Smith paedophile revelations, he writes that ‘blind deference no longer determines a significant part of people’s worldview, earned respect has become the challenge facing everyone in public life… And that’s what gives me ground for optimism.’ This is not a comparison, I don’t think Hunt and Smith are in any way comparable: the point is a reflection on how society has changed, and changed for the better. For decades talented young workers, particularly young women, have had to negotiate and defer to stupid, ill mannered old men who for some reason or another are in a position of authority. They don’t so much now and Hunt did not realise this – hence his shocked response to levels of mockery and derision that are standard in any regulars’ pub or lively office.

Should Hunt have lost his job on this? Instinctively, I feel this sets a bad precedent, but then again, do you want to work for someone who advocates gender segregated workplaces? We wouldn’t tolerate this from a conservative Islamic imam – at least I hope we would not. And as Professor Colquhoun said: ‘All you have to do to see the problems is to imagine yourself as a young women, applying for a grant or fellowship, in competition with men, knowing that Hunt was one of her judges.’ Also, if Hunt had generalised about people of colour, older people or people of faith in the crass way that he did, he would have been out and there would have been no lineup of important people to defend him. Again, as a society we don’t hold the younger generation, particularly young women, in that level of esteem.

The Hunt affair has been framed as a case of academia gone PC wild. But contra the backlash, universities are not that censorious. I know that the NUS has said and done stupid things, individual student unions do stupid things. But student unions are democratic organisations. If student representatives pass idiot resolutions, students can and should vote them out and elect better representatives, even stand for election themselves – although I appreciate that student politics in general is an invitation to a misspent youth. If you think universities chill free expression, try working for an employer. If you are an employee and you shoot your mouth off at a widely reported public event… chances are you will quickly become an ex employee.

Is that fair? Maybe not, but businesses care very much about reputation and universities are a business. The bulk of Colquhoun’s post, and also this fantastic piece by Marina Warner, explores how HE has become strangled by the mindless HR, bureaucracy and target culture that is killing the British work ethic. There’s a debate to be had here, and it goes beyond the student union.

(Image: Connie St Louis)

Year Zero

June 17, 2015

My short story is now up on the phenomenal Disclaimer magazine. It is a speculative fiction piece and my attempt to imagine what it would actually look like if there was some kind of violent dystopian revolution in Britain – don’t expect it to be a contemporary 1984, or even to make much sense, but see what you think. The rest of the magazine is full of interesting stuff too.

Dolezal’s Crime

June 14, 2015

In his article on Rachel Dolezal, the Washington activist, Gary Younge acknowledges that ‘People ‘passing’ for one race, when they are in fact another, has a long tradition in America.’ Dolezal, president of the Spokane NAACP and professor of Africana studies, and prominent anti racist activist, has been in the news because her parents have claimed that she is of white heritage and has been trying to ‘pass herself off’ as a person of colour. Her mother Rutheanne Dolezal told a local TV station that ‘Rachel has wanted to be somebody she’s not. She’s chosen not to just be herself, but to represent herself as an African American woman or a bi-racial person and that’s simply not true.’ Her adopted brother Ezra claimed to BuzzFeed that Rachel, prior to leaving for Washington, told him: ‘Over here, I’m going to be considered black, and I have a black father. Don’t blow my cover.’

Younge’s piece also mentions Philip Roth’s The Human Stain – about a black classicist who takes himself and is taken for others as white, and lives a successful life until he is destroyed by a scandal that erupts when a throwaway remark in class is misconstrued as a racial slur. When I first read the novel, I thought the premise unlikely. How can you disguise your ethnicity? Then I saw, in John Farrell’s biography of Clarence Darrow, an account of the attorney’s meeting with NAACP activists about the Ossian Sweet trial.

Springarn and Studin were dark-complexioned white men, and White was a light-complexioned black man. As Darrow told him of his reluctance to take the case he turned to Springarn and assured him: ‘I know full well the difficulties faced by your race.’

‘I’m sorry, Mr Darrow,’ Springarn said. ‘I am not a Negro.’

‘Well, you understand what I mean,’ he told Studin.

‘I am not colored either,’ Studin replied.

With a certain degree of exasperation, Darrow turned to White. ‘I wouldn’t make the same mistake with you,’ he told the blond-haired black man.

‘I smiled and told him I was colored,’ White recalled.

The point Younge took from Roth’s novel is that ‘When you pass from one racial domain to another, you’re supposed to slam the door shut behind you and throw away the key. You say goodbye not just to the boxes you ticked but the people you knew, including family.’ Reading between the lines, Dolezal’s family life is, at best, difficult. The Guardian report says Dolezal ‘told local media she is not in touch with the couple because of an ongoing lawsuit, and that she does not view them as her real parents.’

The NAACP have issued a statement saying that ‘One’s racial identity is not a qualifying criteria or disqualifying standard for NAACP leadership. The NAACP Alaska-Oregon-Washington State Conference stands behind Ms. Dolezal’s advocacy record.’ It is not yet clear that any ‘misrepresentation’ has taken place. So why the accusatory, even jeering tone of the comment surrounding this affair? Younge writes that ‘It is a cardinal rule of social identity that people have the right to call themselves whatever they want… But with this right comes at least one responsibility: what you call yourself must be comprehensible to others.’ (He adds that: ‘Right now, one can only speculate to her motivations.’)

The NAACP statement is in line with Dr King’s great universalist tradition. You would think that as we reached the twenty first century that society would become more fluid and the old poisons of community, faith and flag would lessen in significance. And indeed most people today don’t self-define in the way that patriarchs and community leaders would like us to. Yet the opposite has happened in our society where identity has become aggravated and essentialised and blown out of all proportion. Political parties hold gender segregated meetings, racist myths proliferate, contradictions between religious tradition and basic universal rights are tiptoed around. Borders fly up around liberal democracies so that immigrants are left to drown in the sea for the political crime of fleeing oppression. Politicians say that the problem with Britain is that we have lost a unifying identity. They’re wrong. We have too much identity and not enough of anything else. Think of all the times you hear ‘pretentious’ used as an insult. But what kind of world would it be if no one ever pretended to be anything they weren’t?

All of which makes the Dolezal coverage, to me at least, seem nasty and hectoring. How dare you slam the door. How dare you forget where you come from. How dare you cut us off. How dare you reinvent yourself. Everybody knows. The worst of this is the implication that Dolezal lied about receiving death threats. ‘She made herself into a martyr on purpose for people to feel sorry for her and to help her,’ her brother says. Does he imagine that now that his sister has been ‘outed’ as ‘white’ the professional organised US Neo-Nazi movement will leave her alone? (As the late lamented Christopher Hitchens observed: ‘It especially annoys me when racists are accused of ‘discrimination.’ The ability to discriminate is a precious faculty; by judging all members on one ‘race’ to be the same, the racist precisely shows himself incapable of discrimination.’)

Gary Younge quotes the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah: ‘The reasonable middle view is that constructing an identity is a good thing … but that the identity must make some kind of sense.’ I’ve yet to meet a human being I can say that about.


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