Archive for May, 2008

‘…’ or – ?

May 31, 2008

A report from the Hay:

Overheard at the Blue Boar pub was an earnest discussion that began: “Are you still using conventional speech marks or are you moving over to the dash?” At which point three of the assembled company leaned eagerly forward, while a fourth looked slightly bemused. The outsider turned out to be the brother of the poet Owen Sheers, who was discussing the writing life over a pint or two with fellow novelist Tristan Hughes and children’s writer Francesca Simon.

The issue of inverted commas versus dashes is clearly a vexed one for today’s young novelists. They blame Roddy Doyle for letting the dash into fiction in the first place, but report that it has recently been spotted in the novels of Niall Griffiths.

At the risk of sounding like Private Eye’s Pedant’s Corner, this is an interesting and ignored topic. In his study of Irvine Welsh, Aaron Kelly puts his case for the dash over the quotation mark:

Welsh – as with James Kelman before him – refuses to place the speech of his characters in quotation marks. Where working-class characters are permitted to speak in the conventional novel the quotation marks around their words helps cordon them off from the authoritative Standard English of the main narrative and its reflective, interpretative power. Welsh, like Kelman, dissolves this narrative hierarchy by placing the speech of his characters on an equal register with that of the narrative itself to produce a democracy of voice.

I agree with Kelly – up to a point. The portrayal of working-class speech in conventional fiction sometimes seems designed to get across the authorial message that you just shouldn’t take these people seriously. Often the working-class characters’ dialogue is an embarrassment of dropped Hs, randomly sprinkled apostrophes and 1950s-era colloquialisms – whereas other characters will speak in fantastically correct received pronunciation, often indistinguishable from the main prose style. Ben Elton’s a particular offender here: he seems to think that everyone north of Watford says ‘fook’ instead of ‘fuck’. (That’s ‘fuck,’ Ben, as in: sort out your fucking dialogue).

It’s understandable that writers want to collapse this hierarchy – Alan Warner, for example, does not even use a dash. And very few people, of any class, speak Standard English as it is written – regional and social variations make the idea of pure language a laughable dream.

Yet on balance, I have to stick with the quotemark, for the practical reason that the dash doesn’t always provide the separation of speech from narrative, and even in Irvine Welsh’s skillful hands it can get messy.

For more on Irvine Welsh’s dialect see John Mullan.

Censorship and self-censorship

May 31, 2008

The Guardian features an interview with Hicham Yezza, a Nottingham student arrested for viewing an Al-Qaeda training manual from a US government website for research on his MA about Islamic extremism. The original manual was downloaded by a friend, Rizwaan Sabir, and emailed to Yezza. Both have been arrested under the Terrorism Act.

You would have thought that such materials are entirely appropriate for research purposes if you are completing an MA on Islamism. Also: what terrorist would be stupid enough to download a terrorist training manual from a website owned by the American government?

It gets even more ridiculous – the material in question is apparently available on Amazon.

Shamefully, the government originally intended to deport Yezza. Although this has been cancelled, it seems that Yezza is still incarcerated and will shortly be moved to a fifth detention centre in nine days.

Yezza said his situation highlighted a growing fear on campuses. “It’s a very, very worrying trend that needs to be opposed, this mindset that views everything with extreme suspicion. That installs some sort of ‘play it safe’ mentality, which is the very opposite of intellectual endeavour.

“No intellectual progress takes place without a sense of curiosity, without a sense of going beyond what we know already, beyond the established facts and notions and truths; that’s how scientific and intellectual revolutions have been achieved.”

”Someone could be forgiven, in this current climate, for panicking at this type of document. But I would have appreciated had I been given five minutes simply to answer the questions relevant to the document. Once the procedure was launched it was quickly out of the university’s hands.”

This is a shameful attack on academic freedom and basic liberty. Sign the petition here.

The master of misdirection

May 30, 2008

Christopher Brookmyre, number one crime writer bar Carl Hiaasen, talks about his writing in Scotland on Sunday.

It’s always good to know that he has a new novel out. To my mind the best thing about Brookmyre is not the bizarre plot twists or the ‘zaniness’ (a word never used outside of daily print) but his empathy – he can put you inside the mind of hero and villain. This talent is exploited to the full in Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks, the book that pitted Brookmyre’s journo protagonist Jack Parlabane against a criminal psychic:

Nowhere does his fascination with faith, credulity and the nature of belief come more to the fore than in last year’s Attack Of The Unsinkable Rubber Ducks, a book dedicated to James Randi, the celebrated debunker of the paranormal, and Richard Dawkins, the outspoken author of The God Delusion.

On the face of it, the novel, published in paperback next month, is just the latest of his Jack Parlabane stories, a series of escapades about a cynical investigative reporter with a fondness for putting himself in mortal danger. Like any good crime caper, it features a string of apparently accidental deaths, a tangled web of intrigue and a dramatically over-the-top denouement. All this keeps the pages turning, but it doesn’t detract from the novel’s bigger theme about our willingness to believe in the supernatural.

A lesser writer might let his own strong views detract from the fiction. Yet although he’s very sceptical about psychic phenomena, Brookmyre bends over backwards to see the other side’s point of view and to understand why people are taken in by spiritualism and woo practitioners. In particular, his portrait of a credulous Daily Mail/Madeliene Bunting style journalist avoids the trap of outright parody and captures her lazy equivalences and slapdash thinking in a realistic and sympathetic way. The result is that, when the final revelations come, they are all the more horrifying and completely subvert the reader’s expectations. Brookmyre is a master of suspense and misdirection.

He talks about the book here: 

There was a story in the Sunday newspaper up here at the weekend about this very issue, about privately funded organisations who are trying to put pressure on schools in Scotland and trying to get Intelligent Design into the science curriculum, which is exactly as predicted in the book. When I set out to write the book initially I thought people would accuse me of going after a soft target, because, you know, who takes psychics and mediums seriously anymore? The problem is, well, 1) lots of people do, and 2) the deeper danger is that if we start believing, or continuing not to enquire correctly and scientifically about these absurd superstitions then ultimately what it leads to is teaching people that the world is 4,000 years old.

Creative writing MA: two views

May 29, 2008

Two perspectives on the creative writing boom: one pessimistic, one optimistic.

First, here’s Hanif Kureishi, speaking at the Hay:

”One of the things you notice is that when you switch on the television and a student has gone mad with a machine gun on a campus in America, it’s always a writing student.

The writing courses, particularly when they have the word ‘creative’ in them, are the new mental hospitals. But the people are very nice.”

He said that creative writing courses set up false expectations among students that a literary career will inevitably follow. “The fantasy is that all the students will become successful writers – and no one will disabuse them of that.

“When you use the word creative and the word course there is something deceptive about it.”

I assume Kureishi is here referring to the Virginia Tech killer, who was indeed a creative writing student – I can’t, offhand, think of any others.

But in my experience there is a slight overlap between therapy and writing workshops – or at least people who treat the workshop as group therapy.

Secondly, via Norm, here’s Jonathan Taylor. He offers the heartening thesis that, by concentrating on story, language, character and the human condition, creative writing courses constitute a fightback against the academic fad of postmodernism.

After all, creative writers have to believe in “creation” and “the author” just to do the subject; they have to believe that they can create something original and worthwhile; and they have to believe in human individuality in order to create “believable” characters. To write well, they have to create individual characters with individual traits and problems, rather than archetypes, stereotypes, class types or idealisations.

“How is this fictional character rounded, three-dimensional, realistic?”, “What are the choices facing this character?”, “What does this character’s story tell me about the human condition?” and so on. These are questions of universality, individuality, characterisation, self-determination, ethics, mimesis, realism and authorship; in short, the core questions of liberal humanist criticism.

All of which means – if my friend is right – that the real radicals of modern English departments are to be found on creative writing courses.

I don’t know if this is true – but I hope so.

Myth of liberal Angelicanism

May 29, 2008

Brett Lock has linked to this article by the Bishop of Rochester, one Right Rev Dr Michael Nazir-Ali.

Lock is very critical of this guy, and he is right to be. The faux-philosophical language conceals, as Lock puts it, a ‘much more duplicitous agenda’.

Forget Nazir-Ali’s technique of trying to claim biblical origins for existing progress and freedoms. We all know that a great deal of secularist and freethinking individuals of the time were burned and racked by the Church.

Nazir-Ali’s main point is that Christianity has been in decline since the 1960s. No argument there. But why?

Callum Brown has argued that it was the cultural revolution of the 1960s which brought Christianity’s role in society to an abrupt and catastrophic end. He notes, particularly, the part played by women in upholding piety and in passing on the faith in the home. It was the loss of this faith and piety among women which caused the steep decline in Christian observance in all sections of society.

Notice the weaselly ‘Callum Brown has argued’ – here Nazir-Ali states his case without having the guts to claim it for his own.

It is this situation that has created the moral and spiritual vacuum in which we now find ourselves. While the Christian consensus was dissolved, nothing else, except perhaps endless self-indulgence, was put in its place.

We are on familiar ground here – the collapse of faith has led to binge-drinking, reality TV, Sex and the City and all the other fripperies of our decadent consumerist society. The worst part of secularism for Nazir-Ali though is immigration:

One final value which deserves to be mentioned is that of hospitality. It is indeed ironic that Britain had to cope with large numbers of people from other faiths and cultures arriving at exactly the time when there was a catastrophic loss of Christian discourse. Thus Christian hospitality, which should have welcomed the new arrivals on the basis of Britain’s Christian heritage, to which they would be welcome to contribute, was replaced by the newfangled and insecurely founded doctrine of multiculturalism.

Translation: not only have we let in too many Asians, we failed to convert them to Christianity! Yet worse is to come:

But we are now confronted by another equally serious ideo­logy, that of radical Islamism, which also claims to be comprehensive in scope. What resources do we have to face yet another ideological battle?

… i.e. how can we defeat Islamic fundamentalism? Good question. But naturally Nazir-Ali has the solution:

Our investigation has shown us the deep and varied ways in which the beliefs, values and virtues of Great Britain have been formed by the Christian faith… Is it possible to restore such discourse to the heart of our common life? Some would say it is not possible. Matters have gone too far in one direction and we cannot retrace our steps. Others would be hostile to the very idea. They have constructed their lives and philosophies around the demise of Christianity as an element in public life, and they would be very inconvenienced if it were to put in an appearance again. It remains the case, however, that many of the beliefs and values which we need to deal with the present situation are rooted in the Judaeo-Christian tradition.

Look at the sentence I’ve highlighted. The ‘beliefs and values’ Nazir-Ali says we need are apparently rooted in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. Can they be found anywhere else? Apparently not:

While some acknowledge the debt which Britain owes to the ­Judaeo-Christian tradition, they claim also that the values derived from it are now free-standing and that they can also be derived from other world-views. As to them being free-standing, the danger, rather, is that we are living on past capital which is showing increasing signs of being exhausted. Values and virtues by which we live require what Bishop Lesslie Newbigin called “plausibility structures” for their continuing credibility. They cannot indefinitely exist in a vacuum.

So even if you buy Nazir-Ali’s dubious premise that values such as the rule of law, respect for life, freedom and equality originated from Christianity, apparently we cannot abide by these values outside of Christianity. Since these values are the only way to defeat terror, then there’s nothing for it but this:

The question, then, is not “should faith have a role in public life?” but what kind of role it should have… At the same time, government will have to be increasingly open to religious concerns and to make room for religious conscience, as far as it is possible to do so.

Or, as Lock says:

The bishop is attempting to rally all those lapsed and apathetic Anglicans – who, frankly, probably don’t even think about religion other than during hatched, matched or dispatched ceremonies, to the cause.

‘Civilisation needs you to be Christian’ he seems to be saying.

This is a predictable reaction to the Church’s increasing irrelevance as society migrates towards secularism. In an attempt to corral support, he needs to turn people of other religions – principally Muslims – into scapegoats.

He is trying to force people to define themselves by their religion – or worse – by the religious tradition they were born into – whether or not they still embrace it.

His ambition is to make “Christian values” synonymous with “Western Values” – even though the two are often at odds with each other.

I’d go further: I think Nazir-Ali’s article is a very sophisticated version of the Eurabia conspiracy theory. This is a rightwing fringe idea that is being coaxed into the mainstream. The figures most responsible for it are the writer Bat Ye’or and the DJ Mark Steyn. As Johann Hari explains:

[Ye’or] argues that Europe is on the brink of being transformed into a conquered continent called “Eurabia”.

In this new land, Christians and Jews will be reduced by the new Muslim majority to the status of “dhimmis” – second-class citizens forced to “walk in the gutter”. This will not happen by accident. It is part of a deliberate and “occult” plan, concocted between the Arab League and leading European politicians like Jacques Chirac and Mary Robinson, who secretly love Islam and are deliberately flooding the continent with Muslim immigrants. As Orianna Fallacci – one of the best-selling writers in Italy – has summarised the thesis in her hymns of praise to Ye’or, “Muslims have been told to come here and breed like rats.”

Indeed, the theory features an obsession with birthrates and a use of quasi-medical terminology that carry a disturbing historical resonance. Melanie Phillips, Ye’or’s British admirer, would agree with Nazir-Ali that universal values of tolerance and liberalism will not do the job. Approvingly she quotes another of Ye’or’s disciples:

As Tom Bethell wrote in this month’s American Spectator: ‘Just at the most basic level of demography the secular-humanist option is not working.’ But there is more to it than the fact that non-religious people tend not to have as many children as religious people, because many of them prefer to ‘enjoy’ freedom rather than renounce it for the sake of children. Secularists, it seems to me, are also less keen on fighting. Since they do not believe in an afterlife, this life is the only thing they have to lose. Hence they will rather accept submission than fight.

So, in Phillips’s own words: ‘it is vital that Britain and Europe re-Christianise if they are to have any chance of defending western values.’ The answer to a threat from religious fundamentalism is… more religious fundamentalism!

I’m sorry to say that this lunacy has infected even some liberal secularists. Christopher Hitchens talks of rebuking an atheist comrade:

Sam Harris, a Jewish warrior against theocracy and bigotry of all stripes, had written that it was often fascists who made the most sense when talking about immigration to Europe. The last statement had truly shocked me… I was therefore writing about the way in which the battle over Islamism was making good people wonder aloud about saying or thinking unpleasant or ungenerous things.

And Martin Amis said that:

If every inhabitant of a liberal democracy believes in liberal democracy, then it doesn’t matter what creed or colour they are. If, on the other hand, some of them believe in Sharia and the Caliphate (and believe, too, that slaughtering the attendees of ladies’ night at the Tiger Tiger discotheque is a good way of bringing that about), the numbers start to matter.

No, Martin – it doesn’t matter. Because, as David T of Harry’s Place said: who says that all Muslims are going to think in exactly the same way? Don’t generational changes matter (how much in common do you have with your grandad?) To assume that every Muslim in Britain will automatically want Wahabbi fundamentalism is both a) genuinely racist and b) betrays a shocking lack of confidence in ‘Western’ – actually secular and universal – values.

Enough material for an entire conference

May 28, 2008

I rarely do personal posts. The exceptions come when something happens in my personal life that is interesting, funny, or will make a good story. And this is one that I’ve thinking about for quite a while.


In my early twenties, I had a panic attack while walking down the Headrow in Leeds. If you don’t know what an attack feels like – you don’t want to. Adrenaline is dumped into the bloodstream. The heartrate trebles. The pores gush. The breathing becomes erratic, and you can’t stop shaking. Worst of all is the derealisation – the feeling that the world is not real, and that you are losing your mind.

A taxi ride, a weekend’s partying and a couple of crying jags later I was escorted to a GP by a concerned friend. I related the events of the last couple of days. The doctor thanked me for my candour and offered to call an ambulance. I said I’d rather go home. The guy said that, professionally, he couldn’t let me walk out of his office. 

So I got blued into A + E and spoke to a couple of duty psychiatrists. They theorised that I might be schizophrenic and asked if I wanted to be admitted to the hospital. I wasn’t up for that – and I’m glad I refused, because since then I’ve known people who have been sectioned, and it is no fun at all. I’ve come to think of that meeting as a crossroads, and am glad that I somehow took the right turn.

But at the time I just reeled out of there, terrified. Schizophrenic? Fuck! That attack had divided my life into before and after. Before, I was just wandering down the Headrow on a December afternoon, thinking of buying some tickets to Alabama 3 and maybe having a pint in the Comfort Inn… and now I was facing a lifetime of living with an incurable condition.

It didn’t work out that way – in the end, the diagnosis was simply ‘panic disorder,’ but the attack had weakened me, no question about that. The first one is the worst. Many panic attack sufferers mistake the experience for a cardiac arrest – it certainly looks that way to people around you. In the glow of the aftermath I could barely go out: certainly not to the city centre. I could make my way to my friend’s house, the Hyde Park Social, and that was it. That’s what agoraphobia is, by the way: not a fear of going outside but a fear of being in situations where a panic attack can occur.

I spent a couple of months on diazepam, olanzapine and Prozac and then in February started out patient therapy at this halfway house near Leeds university. By this time I was sleeping an average of sixteen hours in every twenty-four. I also cried a lot – I cried like a trauma victim. Just about anything could set me off: fearful situations, the theme to Donnie Darko, the glint of sunlight off pavement. Friends, on parting, wouldn’t say See ya or Laters, pal: it would be Take care. That’s when you know you’re in trouble: when See ya becomes Take care.

At some point during the therapy I found out that as a kid I’d been tested, inconclusively, for Asperger syndrome. My parents had for well meaning reasons neglected to mention this in the succeeding seventeen years. I had a mixed reaction to this: on the one hand (if it was true) I’d have to manage another lifelong condition; on the other hand, it was a perfect explanation, a rationale, a cop-out for my solitary nature and the current panic problems. In the end, I figured that I probably didn’t have Aspergers and, if I did, it didn’t really matter.

Anyway, the therapy was fantastic. By March I was discharged and had lost my agoraphobia; by April I was back at work. Even before then, the picture wasn’t as bleak as you’d imagine it to be. (If you’re going to go crazy, do it in Hyde Park – you’ll fit in.) There followed four happy and productive years in which I wrote a great deal, got my MA, rode around Amsterdam on the back of a moped, started working for Succour, had a few stories and articles published, did various interesting jobs and began working in regen.

And now – yes, you guessed it – the attacks are back. They have been creeping up on me for a good while, encouraged by hard work and erratic sleeping patterns: and culminated in the first full episode since ’03, sobbing in the back of an ambulance. Stylish, no? And with the attacks has come the agoraphobia, as sure as night follows day. I’m inordinately freaked out by tall buildings, heavy traffic, large concentrations of people. I have started having dreams where I’m lost and trapped in the middle of cities and can’t get out.

Sylvia Plath defined clinical depression – symbolised by the bell jar – as a thick, enclosing glass cylinder, forcing a separation from the world. With phobia it’s the opposite: the foppish Gregory Riding, in Success, says after his first attack that, ‘A whole layer of protective casing has been ripped off my life.’ And, also: ‘Everything has changed. That was all it took.’

Tomorrow I am going to go down the health centre and see what can be done in the manner of professional help. I’m not enthusiastic about the drug route, nor about the various alternative ‘therapies’ that mental health treatment often seems to involve. However, there is no reason why I shouldn’t beat this, just as I beat the obsessive-compulsive phase of my teens and the panic disorder of my early twenties. I’ve been through the mill so many times I could write a Rough Guide. And I am lucky: I’m not an alcoholic, I don’t have substance problems, or emotional issues, or depressions. I can still work, albeit not in a city centre location. I still live in happiness, though not in peace. Panic is a common condition. Millions of people all over the world have it worse – millions in this city have it worse.

Constant Reader, please forgive the self-indulgence and suicidal candour of the above. I don’t need sympathy, or even attention. But what the hell is a blog for, if you can’t rant these things out from time to time?

Friday fallout

May 26, 2008

I was sorry when the Friday Project went under. I’d enjoyed many of their titles, particularly Rachel North’s memoir, and the paramedic Tom Reynolds’s tales of ordinary heroism in a target culture.

However, this February it ceased to trade, and the Bookseller has conducted a post-mortem.

So what went wrong? “Mismanagement in a lot of ways, bad luck I’m sure, and books not doing as well as we’d thought,” says a decidedly shaken-looking [publishing director Clare] Christian. “We spent too much money on promoting ­ourselves.”

[Editor-in-chief Paul] Carr, in his up­coming memoir Bringing Nothing to the Party: True Confessions of a New Media Whore (Weidenfeld, July), has many a tale about the excesses of TFP. He writes about hiring an entire floor of Soho House to launch The Holy Moly! Rules of Modern Life, and drinking a champagne bar dry at TFP’s Christmas party a few months later.

There’s also some insights into the whole blog-to-book genre.

Literary agent Simon Trewin of United Agents, who struck a six-figure deal for “Petite Anglaise” blogger Catherine Sanderson with Penguin, agrees. “I felt that with too many of TFP’s books, what they’d done was taken the blog and ­printed it out, put it between two covers and sold it—nothing else other than that.”

He points to “London by London”, a blog he enjoyed. “I got the book but thought it was like a frozen moment in the time of the blog. You want a book to be a living, breathing object with its own integrity—this was like looking at holiday photos when what you wanted was to be on holiday.”

Trewin also has a warning for those who see blogs as a stepping stone:

The success of Belle de Jour, Anya Peters and others was perhaps more down to the publicity they received than the instant audience a blog provides; Belle won a Guardian award for her blog, prompting a flurry of interest in it and in her identity, while Peters’ story of child abuse had ob­vious appeal for the misery memoir market. But it has meant that a horde of bloggers believe a book deal is in their sights, egged on by the plethora of “tutorials” and “mini-courses” online.

Trewin says: “Some people start a blog, and in two weeks say: ‘Where’s my book deal?’ We can all sniff out those types—people who are setting up a blog merely to get a book deal. You’ve got to go in with a healthy degree of cynicism.” He does hail the new route to publication the blog provides, however: “These days there are lots of different routes to entry, not like the old days when all you could do was send in your manuscript.” The publisher’s job—just as it is with a slush pile—is to sort through the dross to find the gold.

The Third Sect

May 26, 2008

Alison Wolf bemoans the state of charitable giving and volunteering. ‘I asked a group of students, mostly in their late 20s, whether any of them did regular work for a charity. There were blank stares… They were typical of 21st-century Britain.’

But not to worry – help is at hand:

Modern Britain doesn’t do God and so links between religion and charity are not readily acknowledged, certainly not among atheists. In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins argues against the idea that morality needs religion and doubts believers are, in practice, any more likely to behave well than non-believers. Yet a surprising number of our best-known charities have a link to organised religion.

This is not just a Victorian inheritance, as with Barnardo’s and the NSPCC, it is also true of newer, postwar domestic charities. They are rarely overtly religious, but many were founded by clergymen or draw much of their active support from religious groups. The Samaritans is one example, but so are several of the high-profile homeless charities, such as Crisis, which developed in response to an absence of state support.

People who are actively religious are almost twice as likely as their peers to volunteer. This must be partly because all the world’s major religions enjoin their members to help others, but it is also, surely, something structural. Churches (broadly defined) are ‘about’ worship, so they exist independently of any particular charitable activity they support. That also means they are there, with their networks in place, in a crisis. No one needs to set them up. Alastair Murray of Christian homelessness charity Housing Justice argues that the churches are, if anything, more activist than ever and have the huge advantage of being outside government bureaucracy and target-setting, able to respond to local need.

There is another motive, less noble but more obvious, for the faithful’s involvement in charitable works. It’s the same motive held by the nineteenth-century European missionaries and the Christian HIV groups working in Africa today. Perhaps some good has come from this work in the present and past.

Yet aid from the faithful tends to be conditional aid. As Sam Harris explains in The End of Faith:

President Bush recently decided to cut off funding to any overseas family-planning group that provides information on abortion. According to the New York Times, this ‘has effectively stopped condom provision to 16 countries and reduced it in 13 others, including some with the world’s highest rates of AIDS infection.’ Under the influence of Christian notions of the sinfulness of sex outside marriage, the US government has required that one-third of its AIDS prevention funds allocated to Africa be squandered on teaching abstinence rather than condom use. It is no exaggeration to say that millions could die as a direct result of this single efflorescence of religious dogmatism.

Much religious charity work is undoubtedly done out of a common humanity. But there is also a desire to win converts for a dying faith. Domestically two of the most prominent areas for religious charities are mental health and substance abuse. This should not surprise us, as in both you can find many people with shattered minds and low self-esteem. The happy and fulfilled don’t tend towards religious conversions, but life’s casualties make a harvest of captive souls.

Take Alcoholics Anonymous – surely the most common, long running and well known alcoholism therapy in the UK. The programme requires total abstinence (which, if you’re a binge drinker, can initially be meducally harmful) as well as endless group sessions. Its formal traditions, and seven of its twelve steps, are explicitly religious. Most alcohol treatment programmes rely on it in some way.

Yet AA has a success rate of only 5%. NICE would not approve a drug that worked in only five per cent of patients. It gets even worse when we consider that five per cent is a natural remission rate for many serious conditions. So AA may be taking credit for the recovery of people who may have simply recovered anyway. Critics have taken exception to AA’s philosophy of abdicating personal responsibility (not the best way to gain good mental health) and some have even termed it a form of cult religion. My link leads to an article – long but worth reading – that includes a report on a test involving ‘pat-a-cake’ therapy. Addicts went to regular meetings where they sang the pat-a-cake song and then talked amongst themselves – about TV, music, whatever – for an hour. The differences between this ‘treatment’ and that of a formal AA programme were found to be negligible.

Or take mental health. A close friend of mine was sectioned last year. Her NHS Trust didn’t offer a counselling service but could find the money to employ a ward chaplain and a Faith Room. She would ring me up in tears and complain of bullying from members of staff who worked on the ward purely to gain authority over those weaker than themselves. Wolf mentions the Samaritans, again the best known crisis line service in the UK, which is staffed not by trained and paid counsellors but by volunteers. Lay people, mostly retired, who may know absolutely nothing about mental health are touted as the first port of call for the depressed and suicidal. Mental health issues are supposed to be as debilitating as physical ones. But if you break your leg, you need an ambulance – not a priest.

But it’s not all about traditional religion – counterknowledge gets a look in too. This week, I will register with a local health centre to find treatment for agoraphobia and panic attacks, and it seems only natural that its programme should include acupuncture – which has no proven medical value beyond that of the placebo effect.

Of course, as Pragna Patel has pointed out, governments love the voluntary sector because then they don’t have to spend as much money on the welfare state. We may be heading for a situation akin to pre-Bevan times when the care of the weak and sick was entrusted entirely to the church. Good for government and business, not so good for substance abusers and the mentally ill – but then, who cares about those losers?

This development will be largely unopposed, because an air of saintliness has congealed over the act of volunteering. And it is seen as vulgar to demand a day’s pay for a day’s work.

This sounds very cynical so I’ll propose some positive solutions. We need more secular charities (although the ones that exist, such as Doctors Without Borders, get far less attention than their religious counterparts). We need a structural change. The third sector should not exist. Volunteering and community work is noble and people should be paid for it. In the meantime, government should phase out funding for faith-based groups unless they can prove that their religion does not dictate their charity work.

But this is all pipe-dream stuff; shouldn’t we live in the real world? And if you’re drowning, you don’t question the motives of the man who throws you a rope. Yet, as countless Scout children have discovered, the human being is not naturally generous with his time and money, and normally wants something else in return.

As Christopher Hitchens said, reviewing the life of the celebrated fraud Mother Teresa:

MT was not a friend of the poor. She was a friend of poverty. She said that suffering was a gift from God… The rich world has a poor conscience, and many people liked to alleviate their own unease by sending money to a woman who seemed like an activist for “the poorest of the poor.” People do not like to admit that they have been gulled or conned, so a vested interest in the myth was permitted to arise, and a lazy media never bothered to ask any follow-up questions. Many volunteers who went to Calcutta came back abruptly disillusioned by the stern ideology and poverty-loving practice of the ‘Missionaries of Charity,’ but they had no audience for their story. George Orwell’s admonition in his essay on Gandhi—that saints should always be presumed guilty until proved innocent—was drowned in a Niagara of soft-hearted, soft-headed, and uninquiring propaganda.

Update: Watch the fantastic Penn and Teller for more on AA’s effectiveness – such as it is.


Succour Launch – Manchester

May 25, 2008

Yep, this is going ahead… at the Briton’s Protection in Manchester. Featuring readings from Nicholas Royle and (possibly) Luke Kennard. It’ll be on Friday 20 June, 7:30pm. More details to follow…

Tories: ‘soft on foreigners’

May 25, 2008

Anyone surprised that Labour lost the Crewe by-election?

Its campaign was marked by this idiotic spectacle:

Labour’s fight to save Crewe and Nantwich was dirty and personal from the start. On one of David Cameron’s early visits he was greeted by Labour supporters wearing hoodies who urged him to hug them. Then came the activists decked out in top hat and tails whose job was to hammer home the point that both the Tory leader and his candidate were “toffs” who could not relate to ordinary people.

The image may just come to be a defining one in Gordon Brown’s troubled premiership. Dunwoody still refuses to disown it, insisting it was just a bit of byelection tomfoolery. Strategists on the ground said it was a stunt “cobbled together” one morning.

Given the common knowledge that both ruling party and opposition are dominated by the aristocracy, the ‘Tory toff’ thing was always going to backfire. The Guardian adds, unnecessarily, that, ‘Many voters were angry, feeling that they were being patronised.’ Rightly so. If the party won’t take the voters seriously why should you vote for the party? 

Yet the Crewe campaign had its sinister side. From Nick Cohen:

If the problem with [Boris] Johnson was that he was a ‘racist toff’, Labour decided that the problem with [Tory candidate] Edward Timpson was that he was a toff who had proved he wasn’t racist enough when he opposed Gordon Brown’s plans to force foreigners to carry ID. (The accusation wasn’t true, strictly speaking – Labour wants all of us to carry its cards. But little of what Labour has been saying this year has been true, strictly speaking.)

And why even a card? What about a yellow star, pink triangle…

Oliver Kamm quotes this report:

The Tory MP Eric Pickles, who masterminded Timpson’s campaign, was furious that the issue had been raised in a town where, for the most part, locals rub along easily with workers from eastern Europe. “When the circus leaves you have to be careful what you leave behind,” said Pickles. “The last thing you want is to stir up concerns about immigration.”

We’re now in a situation where Labour stirs up morbid fears about unmonitored immigrants, while a Tory MP is left as the defender of civil liberties and multicultural cohesion. This is the absurd endpoint of triangulation.

More: a Tory leader with no apparent ideas, policies or alternatives to the present mess is now being tipped as the next prime minister. Cohen has doubts that a change of leadership would avert this and he’s right – Brown’s not the whole problem. But there needs to be a massive rethink, or else we can look forward to at least four years of Cameron’s twenty-first century Thatcherism – and probably longer.