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

May 20, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Triptych

May 15, 2018

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

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

Everything Old Is New Again

May 14, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Runner Slows Down

May 13, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Image: Wikipedia)

The Wilderness Years

May 4, 2018

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

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

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

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

Lives of the Saints

May 3, 2018

Britain is a healthy nation. No, seriously. We’re giving up drugs, drink, tobacco. Instead of hitting the pub, we’re going for ParkRun. Instead of booze marathons, we’re doing real marathons. We’re smoke free, sugar free, juice bar, massaged kale. We’re writing memoirs about how hard it was and how clean and happy we feel. Every vice has been extinguished – apart from one thing.

It’s a hard one to define, this sinful habit, and the writers come closest. Philip Roth in his campus novel The Human Stain defined ‘the ecstasy of sanctimony’ as ‘America’s oldest communal passion, historically perhaps its most treacherous and subversive pleasure’. Martin Amis’s The Information features a novelist who has become rich writing anodyne morality fables. The egocentric author Gwyn Barry feels, working with his publicity team ‘as if, on his way up in the lift, he had dropped a tab of C: that drug called Condescension… Ninety minutes later he rode the elevator earthwards, leaving the team working late. He said hi to the young black porter, thereby making his day. That was what Gwyn was doing all the hours there were: making people’s day. Whew, that C was really good shit!’

What I’m trying to get at is that sanctimonious rush, that buzz of intellectual one-upmanship. We’re mainlining that drug called virtue, we’re smoking it, glanding it, dropping it, microdosing it into our eyeballs, shooting the stuff into our veins. It’s an epidemic out there. Go on social media and you’ll see activists and commentators, endlessly refining and developing their wokeness like an obsessive golfer perfecting his swing. (For more mundane examples, think of the career bureaucrats who delight in picking up procedural errors in your own workplace.) And, because virtue is nothing without vice, they have to also monitor the speech and behaviour of others, and shame anyone who doesn’t make the line. Flaubert said that inside every revolutionary there is a policeman, and he wasn’t wrong.

Of course that’s nothing you don’t know. There is an entire cultural genre called ‘crazy students banning stuff’ with reports of students banning or protesting against various innocuous individuals or behaviours, for real or perceived political offences. Today’s intervention from the Department for Education was perhaps made with the ‘crazy student’ genre in mind. The Times reports that ‘Students will be banned from refusing speakers a platform at their universities under the first government intervention on free speech on campus for 30 years.’ I mean, wow! There’s a bold pledge: how would it work, exactly?

Perhaps it’s not meant to. I had a look at the BBC report, the Guardian plus the DfE press release and the government’s real idea seems to be to incorporate various protocols into one universal code of practice that would get rid of safe spaces, no platforming and all the other silly political correct things that go on in our universities. Minister Sam Gyimah said that ‘A society in which people feel they have a legitimate right to stop someone expressing their views on campus simply because they are unfashionable or unpopular is rather chilling… There is a risk that overzealous interpretation of a dizzying variety of rules is acting as a brake on legal free speech on campus.’

After years of the ‘crazy student’ genre, there is a surfeit of sanctimony out there, and not just on the part of the crazy students. Manufacturing outrage about political correctness has become a career path in itself. For example, I give you campus celebrity Robbie Travers. He tried to destroy a fellow student’s reputation for a social media post, then portrayed himself as the victim of the student thought police. There is the Spiked Online crew that crank out contrarian content so repetitive it could almost be written by pro forma. There’s a more sinister example in the neo-fascist intellectual Richard Spencer. Until the horror of Charlottesville, Spencer had built a solid media profile on the campus police issue. The Daily Beast explains how he did it:

Spencer traveled the country giving speeches at less-than-receptive colleges. The speaking tour was as much about getting into legal fights as it was addressing students; many of his speeches were sparsely attended. Instead, Spencer and his assistants would wait for colleges to refuse them speaking space. Then they’d accuse the schools of trampling their free speech, and either sue the schools or threaten to do so.

Serious free speech campaigners give these people a wide swerve. People like Travers, Spencer, Brendan O’Neill are not interested in real freedom of expression, they’re interested in building profile, generating attention – and also I think there’s an intellectual vanity there, the delight of the bureaucrat who has found a hole to pick in something. It is classic culture war politics – it has little or nothing to do with people’s lives or what goes on in the world, it is politics as performative dance. And it makes the cause of freedom of expression look ridiculous.

Why does this matter? My first concern is that the DfE proposals aren’t entirely serious and are motivated largely by culture war politics – cynical, I know, but the appointment of Toby Young at Office for Students fits with my cynical view, albeit it was a brief appointment. The other point is freedom of expression is under attack in this country. If you think the campus thought police are bad, wait until you get a job. Post the wrong kind of tweet as a professional, and you could be fired. If you are a whistleblower, raising concerns about, say, patient care, or reckless lending – then you will be fired, and be lucky if that’s not all that happens. Our government can find the time and money for Brexit, which is supposed to be a populist revolution. But we’re not getting a First Amendment or Bill of Rights, which would actually mean something for the common man. We’re going to have the same strong coercive state with its same competing branches trying to police our lives.

A tab of C comes with a heavy comedown.

Why Footnotes Matter

April 12, 2018

Simon Wren-Lewis has weighed in on an argument between Ian Dunt and Owen Jones about the future of populism. I can’t read the whole argument as I have been blocked by Owen Jones on Twitter (as, who hasn’t, darling?) But I would like to respectfully swing my oar at this line from Wren-Lewis: ‘Where I started to disagree with ID’s piece is where he tries to do the classic centrist thing, which is to imply that the dangers of populism in the UK come from both left and right. In immediate historical terms this is nonsense.’

Wren-Lewis follows up with a series of stark and questionable assertions:

In this story of how populism came to the UK, and represents an ever present threat in the UK, Labour’s problems over antisemitism do not even deserve a footnote.

It will not be a Labour government that tells people that have lived here for scores of years that they now have to leave the UK and say goodbye to their friends and family.

It is not and never will be the Labour party that runs an Islamophobic campaign for mayor of London.

Let us walk back a little. Classical American populism was about rights and freedom for the common people. Modern British populism is mainly about a reverence for strongman leaders, and a corrosive aversion to modernity, feminism, urbanity, global trade and honest work. British workers suffer from substandard housing, crap jobs, a decaying social infrastructure, a strong, coercive state, and an institutionalised contempt for the average person. A real populist movement could help struggling workers to organise, have their say and achieve real change. British populism offers little but bitterness, sentiment and nostalgia.

Wren-Lewis knows a little of how we got there: yes, the Tories and their press allies politicised immigration beyond reason during the 2000, and by the time Conservatives regained power in 2010, ‘the idea that immigration was ‘a problem’ that needed to ‘be controlled’ was firmly entrenched in political discourse.’ But I think Wren-Lewis offers only a partial account of how we got where we are: and would argue, too, that the left bears responsibility for the ugly little corner we’ve backed ourselves into.

These days the Blair years look like an era of carefree globalism. We forget about the machine politicians like Phil Woolas and Liam Byrne who dominated debate at the time. Not everyone prospered in the funky groovy New Labour years. There were plenty of coastal hinterlands and market towns ‘left behind’ as they say: there were votes to be had in the half-rational resentments that curdled in such places, and plenty of Labour politicians ready to chase them. Labour passed a ton of anti-migrant legislation in power, which the coalition government built on to create the hostile environment and the border state.

Complementing the legislative drive was a cultural shift towards communitarianism and national introspection. Numerous Labour academics and policy analysts wrote reams on the impact of migration on communities. There were solid points in the bluster: the impact of migration on wages and work conditions, for example. But any real insight was lost, again, in nostalgia and sentiment and the culture war. The latest instalment is coming this weekend, with the 50th anniversary of Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, which the BBC plans to broadcast in its entirety. You don’t need to read the Saturday papers: you can guess what they will say. The right will bang on about patriotism, the left will bang on about racism, the centrists will wring their hands. Should the BBC play Powell’s speech? I really don’t care. Set it to fucking dubstep and put it on 6Music, for all it matters to me. It is all of a piece with the circular, endless and toxic debate that this country cannot seem to leave alone.

At times like this it’s instructive to read the foreign press and see how this country looks from the outside. Jenni Russell wrote in the NYT:

The paradox is summed up by two women I interviewed recently. Both were single mothers living on benefits they denounced as far too low. Both had voted for Brexit. Both believed there were too many foreigners here. And both were scandalized when I asked whether they would take vacant jobs in cafes or shops.

‘They’re immigrants’ jobs,’ one said.

There’s another way of looking at this. James Bloodworth, who recently spent six months of hard graft in an Amazon distribution shed, has argued that refusing gig work is a good thing – ‘it is progress that most British workers will not take jobs from employers who treat them like animals.’ My point is that social democracy cannot be built on unskilled British people sitting around on tax credits while migrants work the fields, like the American South of the plantation years. It could be argued that Russell’s point is pure snobbery, that the left behind needs respect and protection as a class. But this leads to its own backlash. People are resistant to the idea that their country could be walked off a cliff because of some guys on council estates who don’t care to hear a foreign accent in the street.

Let’s go back to Wren-Lewis. I would say that his faith in the Labour leadership is misplaced. Corbyn’s manifesto promises that ‘freedom of movement will end when we leave the European Union’. He moans about the ‘wholesale importation’ of European workers. His ‘jobs first Brexit’ is basically ‘English jobs for English workers’ with better signalling. British Europeans do not trust him – and they are right not to. For Corbyn is the latest incarnation of the Labour right machine politician. And as we’ve seen, he brings far left prejudice with him. Corbyn has turned a proud British labour party into a talking shop for the far right. Thousands demonstrated against his tolerance of anti-semitic bigotry: thousands more have simply walked away from the party, concluding it is beyond hope.

So, respectfully, I would disagree with Simon Wren-Lewis when he says things like ‘In this story of how populism came to the UK, and represents an ever present threat in the UK, Labour’s problems over antisemitism do not even deserve a footnote.’ I think it deserves a little more than that, because these problems demonstrate that there is no minority that populists of the left, as well as the right, would not throw under the bus. None.

The Shock of the Moment

April 2, 2018

It takes a transcript of Desert Island Discs, right at the story’s coda, before the disparate aspects of Lisa Halliday’s baffling novel fall into place with an almost palpable click. Until then, the reader of Asymmetry exists in a kind of rapt confusion. The beginning is ordinary enough – an editorial assistant, young and earnest, begins an affair with a much older man, a prizewinning novelist, a man a little like… Philip Roth. Reviewers tended to look from that angle, and indeed the story gives us a well-drawn, affectionate portrait of the Roth we imagine when we read his own books. Ezra Blazer is a charming, ironic and kind soul, though very much shacked to a dying animal. Walking in the town near the author’s country residence, they pass a pub where a party is going on: the novelist wants to give this scene a miss, and ‘then the tribal rat-a-rat of ‘Sing Sing Sing’ started up and a moment later he was percussing the air as if possessed by Lionel Hampton.’

There are obvious literary and power relations here. Fans approach the couple in restaurants, praise Blazer for his genius, the quality of his prose, his narrative drive… and then, as an afterthought, tell Alice the dutiful partner how nice she looks today. Alice wants to love Ezra, and look after him, but she also wants to outpace him (and she just might). This wonderful para at a concert expresses her dilemma:

To submit to the loving of someone so deeply and well that there could be no question as to whether she were squandering her life, for what could be nobler than dedicating it to the happiness and fulfilment of another? A a certain point the pianist was leaning back slightly, hands working opposite ends of the keyboard as though one had to be kept from popping up while the other was held down, and here Alice turned to look at Ezra, who was watching with his mouth open; beyond him the fermata girls sat frozen in their own poses of wonder and humility: whatever they could do, it wasn’t this, would never be this, or would only become this once a great many more hours had been sacrificed to the ambition. Meanwhile, their hourglasses were running down. Everyone’s hourglasses were running down. Everyone’s but Beethoven’s. As soon as you are born the sand starts falling and only by demanding to be remembered do you stand a chance of it being upturned again and again.

As well as the superb back-and-forth dialogue (dialogue between happy people in love is one of the hardest things for a writer to do) you’re struck by the twentieth-century objects of popular art, the fine wash of peace and prosperity. Ezra gives Alice ‘a burgundy wallet with a coin purse and clutch clasp’, ‘thirty-two-cent stamps from the Legends of American Music series, commemorating Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer, Dorothy Fields, and Hoagy Carmichael’, ‘a bag of Honeycrisp apples’, ‘tofu-scallion cream cheese’, ‘two pieces of geflite fish’, ‘Bulgarian caviar from Murray’s’, ‘a box of jelly doughnuts from the Shelter Island Bake Shop’, ‘an eight-box CD of Great Romantic Standards entitled They’re Playing Our Song’, plus, of course, lots of twentieth-century books. And he sends her out on errands, for more gifts: ‘Little Scarlet Tiptree preserves’, ‘one loaf of Russian pumpernickel, unsliced’, ‘Häagen-Dazs bars’ – Asymmetry is a treasure-house of such things. It’s almost so Manhattan cliche it makes your head spin. As Ezra says on Desert Island Discs:

Lulled by years of relative peace and prosperity we settle into micromanaging our lives with our fancy technologies and custom interest rates and eleven different kinds of milk, and this leads to a certain inwardness, an unchecked narrowing of perspective, the vague expectation that even if we don’t earn them and nurture them the truly essential amenities will endure forever as they are.

The second half of the novel is told by Dr Amar Ala Jaafari, a physician turned economist, travelling from America to Iraq. Amar’s problem is peace of mind – ‘my mind is always turning over this question of how I’m going to feel later, based on what I’m doing now. Later in the day. Later in the week. Later in a life starting to look like a series of activities designed to make me feel good later, but not now.’ Amar would be happier, his mother says, if he could live in the moment, like his brother, a drifter (and another pianist): ‘Sami lives in the moment, like a dog.’

It’s a commonplace of contemporary self-care that we should try and open our eyes to the moment we’re in – witness the mindfulness craze in 2010s psychology – but Amar persists in thinking about tomorrow even though his life is so contingent: he and his family divide their time between Baghdad and the Upper West Side, they strive for professional status and success, and Sami is mostly disapproved of because he chose to marry in Iraq and stay in Iraq. Even travelling back to the old country, Amar is detained by London border control and interrogated on his journey plans. Where he comes from, Amar reflects, ‘the future has long been viewed as a much more nebulous eventuality, if indeed one expects to be around for its eventuality at all.’ Or as his parents put it in their long distance phone calls: ‘Before Iran, before Saddam, before sanctions and Operation Iraqi Freedom and now this, theirs too had been a country of culture, or education and commerce and beauty, and people came from all over to see it and be a part of it. And now? Do you see, Amar, this chaos outside our doors, this madness?’

Halliday’s talent is that she widens this moment for all of us.

Stories All Along the Line: The Inspector Chen Mysteries

March 25, 2018

I have just finished Shanghai Redemption, the latest book in Qiu Xiaolong’s Inspector Chen mysteries. The Chen books were a revelation to me, knowing nothing about China, but Xialong’s style, accessible and elegant, taught me a little about the country and its history and what it might feel like to live in one of its cities. True, the novels aren’t like most police procedurals. Chen Cao comes from an academic family, his father was a Confucian scholar who was persecuted in the Cultural Revolution. As a young man, Chen dreamed of becoming a poet or a scholar himself, but was allocated a career in the Shanghai police bureau in the arbitrary system used by the communist regime at the time. In part he still pursues the aspiration, publishing poetry in newspapers and journals, and supplementing his meagre police income by translating Western crime novels. The detective as artist shouldn’t work, but somehow it does. Chen punctuates his conversation with obscure dynastic poetry, and you completely buy it. As well as Chinese classics like Dream of a Red Chamber, Chen also has Western influences. Lines from Eliot recur throughout the books – culminating in a bizarre scene where Chen is lured to a fake T S Eliot themed book launch in a nightclub-cum-brothel and has to make a quick escape when the venue is raided by vice police.

Xiaolong began his mystery series at a time when China had moved beyond Maoism and started to become a world market power. This gives the books a weird and contingent atmosphere. Everyone is on the take because most professionals are paid at a derisory flat rate which has to be augmented with bribes. Generations of families are crowded into communal shikumen tenements with their washing hung out over rows of creaking shared ovens. Chen himself is seen as a high flyer because, unlike most single men, he actually has his own apartment. Shanghai is full of the great signifiers of late capitalism – Wi-fi, nightclubs, gigantic advertising hoardings, glossy housing developments – but we know that behind all this modernising glamour the strong, coercive state is still there. Even the literary world is fraught with furtive politics: when an American poet tells Chen that ‘I wish there was an institution here like your Writers’ Association. A sort of government salary for your writing. It’s fantastic. In the States, most of us can’t make a living on writing… We all envy you. I would love to go to Beijing and become a professional writer too’ Chen thinks – but naturally is too polite to say – that ‘The American poet would have to live in China for years… before learning what a ‘professional writer’ was like.’

Trying to keep ahead of the political games as well as work complex murder cases takes its toll on the detective, who is plagued by frequent headaches, and in one of the books has a quiet, caffeine-induced nervous breakdown. Chen is always trying to do the right thing – in a postmodern tip, he’s compared by friends to the classic archetypal hero cop in a Moaist serial. But Xialong plays the toll on Chen’s physical and mental health with subtle brilliance. Intellectually he can rationalise his complicity in a foul system, which life and fate give him no choice but to accept. But his body understands better. In a late book, Don’t Cry, Tai Lake, Chen is rewarded – or possibly sidelined – with a vacation at a gated Party luxury resort. Temporarily free from the commitments to the police bureau and Chinese socialism, the bold and rejuvenated Chen pursues a young woman who works at the local chemical plant. But it’s just a holiday and a reprieve: the book ends with the inspector heading back to the Shanghai grind. ‘He wondered whether he would be able to take a nap on the train, feeling the onslaught of a splitting headache.’ Chen is admired as a successful and connected cadre, who makes the Party happy by solving many difficult political cases. But his success is a house of cards. Xialong uses the Dream of a Red Chamber quotation to illustrate the transitory nature of fortune as well as the illusions of states and politics: Truth becomes fiction when the fiction’s true; Real becomes not-real when the unreal’s real.

This is what Xialong does so well – the impact of history upon the individual. The caprice of destiny and states. All the characters are casualties of the Cultural Revolution: Detective Yu, Chen’s sidekick, was sent at a young age hundreds of miles away to rural China as part of the ‘down to the countryside’ movement, where ‘educated youth’ of the cities were exiled to the back of beyond in the hope that they would absorb the spirit of agricultural socialism. Yu met his wife, fellow exile Peiqin in the shitshack farm village to which they’d been assigned. Much of the Yu and Peiqin chapters – their struggles with the housing bureau, and getting their son into college – is a testament of how people can establish happiness and solidarity despite having their lives disrupted by governmental fiat. This sense of warmth and community pervades the series: no matter what’s going on, there always seems to be time to share a drink or a fine meal with company and conversation. The people of Shanghai, Xialong tells us, will outlive their authoritarian rulers.

And through it all, the mystery remains. This is a poem Xialong includes as an epigram to A Case of Two Cities:

 

Out of the train window,

the gaping windows of the buildings

are telling stories all along the line,

about the past, the present and the future.

I am not the teller of the stories,

nor the audience,

simply passing through there,

then, full of ignorance,

so full of imagination.

 

The high tension cables

outline the score of the evening.

 

Simply passing there,

then – ‘Next stop is Halle.’

A Postmodern Prometheus

March 17, 2018

You may have seen in the grown-up arts pages articles about the recent anniversary of Mary Shelley’s classic Frankenstein. Except perhaps it’s not such a classic: like many Regency novels Shelley’s book was far too long and suffered from many silly interludes where Victor Frankenstein pursued his wayward monster across the Arctic Circle. Only Shelley’s idea was good.

Ahmed Saadawi’s reimagining puts Frankenstein’s monster in Iraq a couple of years after the invasion. Hadi is a junk dealer and compulsive storyteller, who fools Western journalists by telling them extravagant lies about his life in the wartorn country. His other hobby is collecting body parts from various bomb sites, which he uses to construct a complete corpse: ‘I made it complete so it wouldn’t be treated as rubbish, so it would be respected like other dead people and given a proper burial’. And one day he finds that the corpse has gone missing.

Postwar Baghdad is so chaotic and corrupt that at first the appearance of a murderous monster – the Whatitsname, or the Criminal Who Has No Name – at first causes little comment in the city. Saadawi captures it all so well, the generals, journalists, lawyers and mystics fighting it out for influence in the post Baathist landscape. And just the people trying to get on with their lives: the journalist Mahmoud, lusting after the beautiful film director Nawal al-Wazir, who is going out with Mahmoud’s slippery boss, Ali al-Saidi. The elderly widow Elishva lives alone with her cat: across the street is the barbershop of Abu Zaidoun, who Elishva despises as she holds him responsible for sending her son to die in Saddam’s wars. Frankenstein in Baghdad is lively and fun, but there’s always the threat of violence in Saadawi’s world, and the tight knots of complicity and grief. Saadawi has a great para on the difficulties of truth and reconciliation:

So had the old woman really been telling the truth? Had her son really survived the slaughter of the 1980s? Over the last three years the local people had heard many stories that were no more believable. Dead people had emerged from the dungeons of the security services and non-existent people emerged from nowhere outside the doors of their relatives’ humble houses. There were people who had returned from long journeys with new names and new identities, women who had spent their childhoods in prison cells and had learned, before anything else in life, the rules and conventions for dealing with the warders. There were people who had survived many deaths in the time of the dictatorship only to find themselves face to face with a pointless death in the age of ‘democracy’.

The Criminal Who Has No Name causes increasing carnage and comes to the attention of the hack generals and administrators running the city. It kills suicide bombers, terrorists and mercenaries (‘I killed the al-Qaeda leader who lived in Abu Ghraib and was responsible for the massive truck bomb in Tayaran Square that killed many people, including the person whose nose Hadi picked up off the pavement and used to fix my face’) amasses followers and acolytes – the Sophist, the Magician, the Enemy – and even gives interviews to local media. Against the disaster backdrop though there is a hopeful, kind and uplifting element to the story, acts of kindness and companionship which take over the plot and add a poignancy to this splintered narrative. The monster remains at large – and it’s pleasant to think that the Frankenstein of Baghdad is still out there somewhere.