Archive for July, 2008

‘O wretched generation of enlightened men’

July 30, 2008

Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is not happy. He’s told Anglican bishops that humanity is ‘living through one of the most fateful ages of change since Homo sapiens first set foot on Earth’. According to Rabbi Sacks:

Globalisation and the new information technologies were fragmenting the world ‘into ever smaller sects of the like-minded’. At the same time, the fast flow of information was forcing people together as never before.

Terry Sanderson has already noted the irony of a religious person berating society’s tendency to split into small interest groups. But what is the cause of this dangerous new change? Go on, have a guess:

Almost all of Britain’s social problems are caused by a loss of religion… Societies without religion disintegrated and people succumbed to depression, stress, eating disorders and alcohol and drug abuse, Sir Jonathan Sacks told 650 bishops and their spouses in Canterbury.

Sir Jonathan, the first Chief Rabbi to address the Lambeth Conference, said that a society that lost its religion lost ‘graciousness’. ‘Relationships break down. Marriage grows weak. Families become fragile. Communities atrophy. And the result is that people feel vulnerable and alone.’

He continued: ‘That is where we are.’

That is where we are: we’ve lost the still, small voice of God in our hearts; replaced belief with ennui and cynicism. Where in a gentler age we used to belt out hallelujahs at the Sunday service before frolicking off to the pavilion for beer and cakes, now we sit in Urban Splash developments self-harming, watching Paramount and eating sugar from the bag. It’s the same Daily Mail rallying song, although Oliver James’s Affluenza has set it to a pleasing liberal tune.

The great poet T.S. Eliot might have agreed. His play The Rock is a similar tirade against secular modernity. Here are some choruses:

The Word of the LORD came unto me, saying:

O miserable cities of designing men

O wretched generation of enlightened men

Betrayed in the mazes of your ingenuities

Sold by the proceeds of your proper inventions

I have given you hands which you turn from worship

This is the world T.S. Eliot saw: one ‘confused and dark and disturbed by portents of fear’; where people ‘dash to and fro in motor cars… and daughters ride away on casual pillions’.

But Eliot was writing in 1934 when the church was still relatively powerful. How far back would the clock need to be turned to satisfy Sacks or Eliot? Pre-Enlightenment? Perhaps the Medieval Age? Even then perhaps some Jonathan Sacks equivalent was saying, ‘God, we’re becoming so materialistic. Not enough people are coming to the witch pyres.’  

The idea that people could be bored or miserable when religion still ruled evidently hasn’t occurred to Sacks. If it had, he would have to consider abandoning his easy answer to society’s problems – that they are caused by a lack of religion – and reflect that perhaps a capacity for disillusion and unhappiness is one of the many aspects of the human condition.

Is today such a godless age? It seems an article of faith that materialism is bad, and many secular liberals pay a lip service to religion that is seldom justified. Even when reason is defended, it is often in the context of religion: thus, reviewing his boss Chris Harman’s book A People’s History of the World (subtitle: How the SWP Invented Fire) Richard Seymour states that ‘the Islamic contribution to Enlightenment thought is duly registered in a way that frustrates attempts to claim the Enlightenment for ‘the west’.’ Modish thinker John Gray makes a similar claim, that there would be no Voltaire without Christianity.

There’s little discussion on the claims of religion but a general Straussian view that it is needed for social cohesion (and they do so much for charity, you know). Religion may be dying, but there is no shortage of efforts to reanimate the corpse.

Terry Sanderson takes apart Sacks’s claims in the Guardian. He begins by noting that America has many of the same social problems but a much higher level of religious observance than we do. He also points out that some of the things Sacks complains about are not necessarily problems:

The rising divorce rate could simply be an acknowledgment that marriage doesn’t work for everyone. It is only since we have been released from the shackles of religion that we have we been able to do anything about it. In days of old, when religion ruled every aspect of our lives, divorce was not an option, except for the very rich.

And so millions (mainly women) endured lives of utter misery in marriages that verged on torture.

Obesity is a sign of our affluence, not of our atheism. In deeply religious countries in the developing world there is little obesity. But that has nothing to do with religion restraining people’s greed, it is to do with poverty and lack of opportunity.

Finally: what is the Chief Rabbi’s solution to social issues? It seems to be the ‘god of the gaps’ – any blank space in our knowledge or happiness must be filled by religion. Just as creationists try to use ‘intelligent design’ to explain the problems in evolutionary theory, so Jonathan Sacks wants the void in people’s lives to be filled by God. In Sanderson’s words: ‘Rabbi Sacks thinks we should all troop back to church/synagogue and all the problems would be solved.’

Yet history tells us that religion isn’t always the guarantor of human happiness – to put it politely.

Reading at work

July 29, 2008

A Guardian writer with the wonderful name of Hermione Buckland-Hoby asks: ‘Could reading become the new smoking?’

I prefer both at the same time, myself.

She goes on to explain:

This appears to be the overly-wishful aim behind the Adopt a Book Scheme, a joint venture between The Book People and National Year of Reading to encourage reading via the workplace.

Their concept seems to be this: businesses choose a book for all their employees to read which they then bulk buy at discounted prices. Copies are distributed to the grateful masses. Employees then embark on a reading experience which sees smoking rooms transformed into literary salons, breezing with smokeless air and the invigorating blasts of bookish debate. Working relationships flourish, communication skills are universally improved and teams are well and truly built.

Could we commandeer the faith rooms as well?

Buckland-Hoby goes on to list a major problem with this scheme:

A patrician boss decreeing his or her employees’ reading material seems rather Victorian. (Lady Chatterley’s Lover may just about be permissible for your wife and servants now but what about your workforce?) And, on the subject of D H Lawrence, how to chose a book that doesn’t upset anyone? The ultra-cautious mentality of the workplace would surely result in a choice so scrupulously inoffensive that no one would want to read it.

This is the scheme’s main failing – the contemporary workplace is somewhere that people walk on eggshells, which perhaps explains the passionate bustups and copoffs at the annual works’ do. The selected novel would no doubt be offensively bland.

Why not encourage people to bring their own books, from home?

Buckland-Hoby asks: ‘what would be your nominations for workplace novels – sincere or otherwise?’ Here are my suggestions:

Call centres: The Jungle, Upton Sinclair, or Carl Hiaasen’s Nature Girl

Local government: Irvine Welsh’s Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs

University admin: Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim

NHS admin: Christopher Brookmyre’s Quite Ugly One Morning.

Bar work: Cold Water, Gwendoline Riley


July 28, 2008

The TUC have found a novel way of showing solidarity with Zimbabwean trade unionists.

They have encouraged supporters to send in headshots of themselves and made a mosiac of the results. (My stupid face is in it somewhere.)

This is beautiful to look at, and more importantly the site gives you a method of lobbying the Mugabe government about the arrests of Lovemore Matombo and Wellington Chibebe, President and General Secretary of the Zimbabwean Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU).

They were arrested on 8 May for speaking out about the state-sponsored violence in Zimbabwe – or as Robert Mugabe’s government put it ‘spreading falsehoods prejudicial to the State’.

Lovemore and Wellington are due to appear in court on 30 July, to defend themselves against these charges. The mosaic is made up from the pictures of over 2,000 trade unionists from around the world, who have come together to make this public demonstration of support for the ZCTU leaders and all unionists in Zimbabwe.

Update: John in the comments writes that Lovemore and Wellington’s trial has been postponed until August 27.

He adds:

I guess it suits Mugabe even more to keep union scrutiny silent by just extending the unfair bail conditions, and he thinks people may just forget about them if it drags on. Make a date to check back again in August and keep up the pressure!

More on faith-based welfare

July 27, 2008

I’ve now had a read of the Department for Communities report that the NSS linked to.

The document, ‘Face-to-Face and Side-by-Side: A framework for partnership in our multi faith society,’ relies heavily on abstract ideas of best practice, delivered in the kind of management duckspeak that is the official language of government today. Like Orwell’s Newspeak, this is the kind of talk that can be parroted straight from the larynx without engaging the brain.

Where it does make direct claims, they are problematic. For example, Hazel Blears states in her foreword that ‘According to the 2001 census, more than three quarters of us in the United Kingdom consider ourselves to have a faith.’ This is disingenuous. According to Christian researchers, church attendance as a proportion of the population has been plummeting for sixty years and will hit a low of 2% by 2040. Of the people who have faith, most do not consider it an integral part of their identity.

Thus the shorthand phrase ‘people of all faiths and none’ should be amended to ‘all people, and some people who are religious’.

The report also seeks to reinforce the conventional wisdom that faith groups do a lot for charity. To this end it states:

Faith based organisations and charities have long been at the forefront of social action in this country and the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) identifies them as a ‘strong force’ within the third sector. Over half of faith based charities aim to serve the general public.

To support this the report cites the NCVO’s 2007 document ‘Faith and Voluntary Action: an overview of current evidence and debates’. But the NCVO research actually indicates that religious affiliation makes little difference in terms of volunteering (p12). Key quote:

Our review of the evidence highlights the fact that the perceived distinctiveness of faith-based organisations across a range of domains (particularly values, resources and building social capital) is seen as important by policy-makers, yet there is no compelling evidence that faith-based organisations are different from other organisations (p56, emphasis mine).

And as Brett Lock pointed out:

[I]n terms of providing wider dispersed social services, faith-based groups are not up to the task for the simple reason that an obvious intra-communal generosity has been misdiagnosed by the secular eye as a faith-based propensity for charity.

My experience of voluntary organisations is that they are motivated by a common humanity, not superstition. An example was a project in a deprived area of North Manchester. The estates suffered from high levels of unemployment and crime. Residents were terrified to open their front doors. One local resident – we’ll call her Jo – had had enough of this and gave up her evenings organising events and activities to keep young people off the street.

This had positive and tangible effects on the area because when the young people were at her evening sessions they couldn’t be elsewhere committing crimes – not to mention the opportunities and interests they were introduced to, and the stability brought to their lives.

Jo ran these programmes for years, without pay, before the council started funding her. There wasn’t any appearance of religious faith in her motivations – just a desire to make her community a safer place and to prevent young people from screwing up their lives by getting involved in crime.

Can we have an end to the misconception that religious people are naturally better disposed towards social justice than the rest of us?

Contrast Jo’s hard work with this case study from the government report. Entitled simply ‘The Tent’, this is ‘an unexpected and private space dedicated to the meeting of faiths as equals (as opposed to guests in each other’s spaces).’

The Tent draws on Bedouin traditions of hospitality, and was made of goats hair in the Middle East.

The unusual 16-sided structure was designed by Prof. Keith Critchlow, a world expert in sacred geometry, who was charged to create a ‘sacred’ space without using symbols specific to any one religion. Using the universal language of geometry, algebra, astronomy and harmony he has created a perfectly proportioned space which draws on the traditions of Al-Andalus Southern Spain during the middle ages, where Jews, Christians and Muslims shared the space in relative peace for 300 years. The interior is carpeted with rugs woven in places of conflict throughout the world and it sits in a tranquil peace garden.

The Tent provides an experimental meeting space where people of different faiths can come together in different ways to explore differences, transform conflicts, and to build firm foundations for collaboration. The programme of activities is based on a ‘Spectrum’ which defines ten categories of inter faith engagement. These range from specific dialogue processes, through methods for studying sacred scriptures together, storytelling (sharing personal narratives) to devotional gatherings using various forms of meditation and music. Particular attention is paid to learning and teaching facilitation and group work skills to group leaders.

I am not making this up.

The report features familiar names from the usual rogues’ gallery of fundamentalists, including the Salvation Army – which told a human rights committee that it was impossible for the SA to be religiously neutral – and also MPACUK, a far right Islamic group whose founder contributed to David Irving’s defence fund. Apparently MPAC have been ‘leading a campaign to involve women in Britain’s mosques’ (p53). The report notes that most mosques do not admit women, but hastens to absolve faith from discrimination: apparently this is ‘not because of their theological following but because the architecture of the mosque does not allow for a separate space for women.’ Couldn’t women and men simply pray together? Perish the thought!

In conclusion, this report deserves no better analysis than Keith Porteous Wood gave:

This document gives a disturbing insight into the Government’s obsession with the so-called faith communities. It gives the impression that all religious activity is good and that religious people in the country do such disproportionate amounts of good work that they need to be uniquely cherished and encouraged, often with significant amounts of cash. The document gives sparse and token references to the efforts and energies of non-religious volunteers and community activists. We are really non-citizens as far as this document goes.

Happy Kafka

July 27, 2008

As well as being one of this country’s best novelists, James Hawes also has a PhD in Franz Kafka. Here he dissects the Kafka myth:

The myth of Kafka’s life so overshadows what he wrote that millions who have never read a word of his know, or think they know, something about the middle-European Nostradamus, almost unknown in his own lifetime, trapped in a dead-end job, whose mysterious, endlessly interpretable works somehow foresaw the Holocaust (and so on).

While writing my book Excavating Kafka I came across unpublished material so striking as to suggest that the myth needs completely demolishing… the light of historical reality floods in through the holes in the hagiographic myth. We find a millionaire’s son addicted to whores all his adult life; a writer backed by an influential clique who was admired (and knew it) by almost every major German-language fellow-author of his day; a loyal Habsburg citizen with a senior state-sector job who expected (and wanted) the German and Austrian empires to win the first world war, right to the end; a man who had no more inkling of the Holocaust than anyone else.

With the rubble cleared away, perhaps we’ll at last see Kafka’s work for what it really is – not the gloomy stuff we Anglo-Saxons received via post-Auschwitz French existentialists, but wonderful black comedies written by a man soaked in the writings of his predecessors and of his own day.

I have only read Kafka’s stories, but it seems to me that Hawes is right – Kafka’s admirers tend to focus on the person, rather than the fiction, and perhaps project their own frustrations onto what they think he was.

I’ll say one thing for that Bin Laden

July 27, 2008

The National Secular Society’s Keith Porteous Wood has been dicing with death-by-boredom at an  inter-faith policy meeting in Parliament. The occasion was the launch of a document called ‘Face-to-Face and Side-by-Side: A framework for partnership in our multi faith society‘. I will read this later, if I get time.

One impression of Wood’s stands out.

I have always maintained that those most likely to attend interfaith events such as these are not the people that the Government really needs to influence. I was shocked, therefore, to overhear a conversation at this launch along the lines of ‘I am not sure I understand Bin Laden’s extremism, but you have to admire him standing up for what he believes in.’ The companion responded ‘absolutely’. You couldn’t make it up, and unfortunately we haven’t.

Still more casualties of prohibition

July 26, 2008

This is sad.

‘We’ve been down £60k since the start of the smoking ban,’ said Damien Smethurst, landlord of one of Sleuth’s favourite authentic drinking dens, The Castle, on Oldham Street. ‘We only had the area out the front for smokers, no garden or anything, so it’s hit us hard.’ Thus a pub which has been nominated for the Pub of the Year 2008 award, will die today, sunk under a welter of bills and lack of business. Sleuth will miss it. It was a bit of a mess (blame Robinsons, the brewery for not spending refurb money) but it was homely pub and a haven for unreconstructed Northern Quarter drinking: plus a bolthole of musicians such as Liam Frost, Stephen Fretwell and mosaic man Mark Kennedy to name a few. Sleuth wishes the best of luck to Damien.

When a pub goes, a lot goes with it. Often a lot of individuality. At the Castle you got a mosaic of Kathy, Damien’s mum, on the wall over the bar with her ashes worked into the cement (oh yes, indeed), a big Czech Republic flag (the pub had been adopted by the latter fans in the 1996 Euro Championships), a snug with Damien’s maverick selection of books, a big music room, a urinal flushed by an external drainpipe, a complete range of Stockport brewery Robinsons ales (this is the only Robbies pub in the city centre) and a resident ghost.

This is from Manchester Confidential. There’s nothing in the Evening News.

I used to go to the Castle a great deal. It was one of the best pubs in the Norther Quarter, if not the city, and it gave my mate’s band some of their first gigs. The Confidential piece gives a fair account of the atmosphere.

Now, one of those tiny sparks of individuality that gives a city its life has been extinguished: no doubt to be replaced by an All Bar One, Wetherspoon’s, Cafe Rouge or another soulless corporate franchise whose profits can absorb the ban.

But then, that’s the idea, isn’t it?

The world’s smallest violin

July 25, 2008

I saw this hilariously pedantic and abusive email via Popbitch. Now Giles Coren’s petulant rant is at the Guardian and Mark Thwaite has also linked to it.

What I don’t get is that Mark and Emma Barnes seem very sympathetic to Coren, in a kind of ‘Isn’t it annoying when your pieces are badly subbed?’ type way. Whereas for me, Coren is simply throwing his toys out of the pram.

Anyway, judge for yourself:

And worst of all. Dumbest, deafest, shittest of all, you have removed the unstressed ‘a’ so that the stress that should have fallen on ‘nosh’ is lost, and my piece ends on an unstressed syllable. When you’re winding up a piece of prose, metre is crucial. Can’t you hear? Can’t you hear that it is wrong? It’s not fucking rocket science. It’s fucking pre-GCSE scansion. I have written 350 restaurant reviews for The Times and i have never ended on an unstressed syllable. Fuck. fuck, fuck, fuck.

I am sorry if this looks petty (last time i mailed a Times sub about the change of a single word i got in all sorts of trouble) but i care deeply about my work and i hate to have it fucked up by shit subbing. I have been away, you’ve been subbing joe and hugo and maybe they just file and fuck off and think ‘hey ho, it’s tomorrow’s fish and chips’ – well, not me. I woke up at three in the morning on sunday and fucking lay there, furious, for two hours. weird, maybe. but that’s how it is.

New workhouse initiatives

July 24, 2008

Public attitudes to the welfare state are strange. We all know about the cash-in-hand window cleaners on incapacity benefit. Fraudulent benefit claimants inspire much more attention and indignation than billionaire tax-dodgers and incompetent banks bailed out with public money. A recurring subtext is that, because some people rip off the welfare state, we would be better off without a welfare state.

If only we could stop people screwing the system, if we could save public money from fraudsters and scroungers, how much better our lives would be! Many people have a touching, if naive, faith in the government to pass on such savings in the form of reduced tax bills.

I’ve been reading the DWP paper that’s been in the news and on the blogs. It has a lot of good ideas. Contrary to conventional wisdom, most people on benefits want to work and most people with long-term health conditions want to work. Getting drug addicts and alcoholics into treatment is also a good idea. So is an allowance for people returning to work. The paper makes all the right noises about supporting people back into employment, making reasonable adjustments to account for disabilities and generally providing opportunities. Johann Hari makes a good case for supporting the legislation.

But I can also see some problems with the new approach. Requiring people to sign on daily is a stupid idea. As Nick Cohen pointed out, it can waste claimants’ money on public transport fares and certainly waste claimants’ time when they could be looking for a job. A positive effect will be the effect on fraud, but the majority of honest claimants will be collectively punished. This, in fact, is the problem with the benefits system: it’s geared towards screening out the small minority who abuse the system rather than helping the bulk of claimants who are genuinely ill or in need of support. The principle of innocent until proven guilty is reversed: here, you’re presumed workshy scum until you can demonstrate otherwise.

Like I say, I’m all for giving unemployed people opportunities to work and train – it’s better than the Victorian laissez-faire system in which the poor were left to starve, rob and kill each other. But the government seems not to understand the distinction between opportunity and coercion. Hence:

[E] veryone in the Flexible New Deal will be required to work or undertake work-related activity for at least four weeks; if the customer’s action plan requires it, the full-time activity can last as long as needed in the duration of the Flexible New Deal

(No One Written Off: Reforming Welfare to Reward Responsibility, ch2, p41P)

Aside from the Dickensian precedent of forcing people to work for nothing indefinitely, the kind of labour claimants are likely to be doing is almost certainly going to be menial community work with no real benefits in terms of skills and experience. It is similar to the unpaid community work carried out by offenders and will increase the social stigma of unemployment. And as Gregor Gall points out, you can’t compete with slave labour and having a great pool of chain gangs could undercut wages and conditions for paid workers:

This would be the ultimate competitive contract tendering (CCT). You could also imagine existing, free workers feeling compelled to take wage cuts and work longer hours to fend off the claimant labour in order to keep their jobs.

Also, the government has been going on about working with employers in the private and voluntary sector to get long-term claimants into work. Fair enough – but who are these employers? Private industry is notoriously unsympathetic to people with mental health problems – and these make up a big proportion of IB claimants. Fewer than 40% of employers are willing to hire someone with an illness of this kind. And most jobs are the standard one size fits all, 9-5, forty hours kind of thing with little room for flexibility. Nasim Marie Jafry’s novel details the struggles of an ME sufferer to find a job or volunteering opportunity that is compatible with her condition. So where are these strategic partners to come from? Don’t all rush at once!

Work may be a route out of absolute poverty but what with inflation, the credit crunch, transport costs and a regressive tax system, it is more often a poverty trap of its own. The old capitalist myth, that you can go from shelf-stacker to Tesco tycoon through hard graft, is increasingly unsustainable – social mobility has actually decreased since the 1950s. Permanent jobs are getting harder to come by with much more people employed through recruitment consultants who provide no security and skim off a third of the employee’s income.

I also find it hard to believe Labour’s claims for work as a health booster. Negative health effects I can think of include the day-to-day stress and sleeplessness of the commute and the early starts; the stress of corporate politics, deadlines and backbiting. And that’s just standard office work – I’ve not taken into account the dangers from physical injury and death, or industrial diseases, that factory and construction work can entail.

There are some genuinely interesting and challenging jobs out there and you can get a good feeling when your paycheque hits the account at the end of a hard week. But in general, most jobs are repetitive, dull, and a waste of time. Forty hours you could be spending with your family, taking exercise, raising your children, improving your mind, writing a book, travelling the world, helping others, having a drink, or making love.

Yes, unemployment is a problem – but let’s not pretend that work cures all ills.

Update: Also, see Shuggy’s excellent piece. Money quote:

The other curious thing about our society is that we are asked to believe it is only the well-off and the rich that respond to incentives to work. Don’t tax incomes or profits too much lest you incentivize inertia, the Thatcherites told us. Very well – so why doesn’t this apply to the poor, the low paid, the unemployed?

The State of Me

July 23, 2008

I have just read The State of Me by Nasim Marie Jafry. It’s the story of Helen Fleet, whose studies, hopes and relationships are torn apart when she is struck down by ME in her early twenties. The focus of the narrative is Helen’s condition, which makes the title kind of like Alan Partridge’s failed TV programme pitch ‘Knowing ME, Knowing You’ (‘I talk to ME sufferers… give them a platform… make it light-hearted, you’ve got to keep the energy up, because…’)

Before reading Jafry, I had a vague idea of what ME was. I didn’t know that it could be triggered by viral infections. I thought the symptoms were what people call ‘chronic fatigue’ – but the term is barely adequate to cover the debilitating nature of the disease. You sense one of the aims of this book is to dispel the misconceptions surrounding the condition. Jafry does it well, titling a chapter ‘FAQs’ and including several dialogues between Helen and an ignorant stranger. Here she explains the day-to-day burden of ME:

On a good day, I can walk a mile, but my legs will be burning afterwards – I need a few days to recover… I’m always measuring out my energy behind the scenes, but people don’t see it. They see you at a party and think you’re fine, they don’t see you resting all day to be able to go, and being wrecked all next day because you went. They don’t see you leaning on walls at bus stops because you can’t stand for more than five minutes. They don’t see how tired your arm gets after beating an egg. They don’t know you almost always have poison in your calves when you wake up. They don’t see you weeping because you’re so tired of it all.

Spanning fifteen years, the story charts Helen’s attempts to maintain friendships, relationships and career opportunities in spite of the disease. There’s the misguided guilt, the sense of being a burden to loved ones. The negotation of welfare bureaucracy. The initial confusion and denials, reinforced by the disbelief and ignorance of others. As countless mental health patients know, people aren’t that understanding when it comes to illness. Any condition without immediately obvious physical symptoms will be dismissed as attention seeking. ‘When are you going to stop all this nonsense, my girl?’ her grandmother demands. ‘It’s all in your head.’

Worse, suspicion is also expressed by medical staff – a GP tells Helen that ‘there is nothing physically wrong with you’ – and it was only in 2002 that the Chief Medical Officer produced a report for the government establishing that ME is a real condition and doctors were no longer allowed to tell patients that they did not believe in it.

What opens the reader’s eyes is the insight Jafry gives into our ignorance: how little we know of ME and how ineptly it has been handled by conventional practitioners. There is a political dimension – ‘I am also furious,’ Helen says, ‘that the government doesn’t believe that soldiers with Gulf War syndrome are genuinely ill.’ And during World War One soldiers who were almost certainly suffering from shellshock were executed as cowards.

Not that alternative medicine is any better: ‘Meditating and aromatherapy won’t cure you,’ Helen says, ‘neither will learning to love yourself or drinking nettle tea’. This doesn’t stop acquaintances, in a marvellous running joke, suggesting a range of crackpot old wives’ remedies (‘Have you tried echinacea? It boosts your immune system, dear’).

If ME has dominated this review, that’s because it dominates the novel. The disease even seems to affect structure and prose: when it is first apparent, the chapters become patchy and broken, the language not clear as a window pane but like viewing the world through thick gauze. Later in the novel, when Helen has developed an ability to live with the condition, her narrative gains more clarity and grace.

Mind you, anaemic and bloodless prose is common in the contemporary novel and Jafry’s suffers from the usual defects: indistinguishable characters, blatant author surrogacy, barely adequate description, twee nicknames and in-jokes, banal dialogue rendered as solemn and profound (‘D’you want a doughnut? Yes, please, she said, I’d love a doughnut.’ End of para.)

Yet somehow, about two hundred pages in, Jafry finds her groove and the story flows like wine. You begin to believe in the characters. When the disease kicks in, Helen is living with a boyfriend, Ivan: she is madly in love with him, and their relationship continues on-and-off for the next decade and a half. Even when they aren’t together she develops a possessive paranoia, suspecting him of seducing lab assistants on his research contracts abroad. This jealously continues even when his commitment to her is no longer in question. ‘I am worn out with doubting,’ Helen tells us. ‘He stormed out last week and said, When will you believe I love you?! He knows when.’

There are moments of wild humour. Talking about her relationship prospects, a friend tells Helen: ‘You’ve got a lot to offer, you know you have.’ Her reply: ‘Like what – blow jobs and home-baking?!’ There is a loving eye for peoplewatcher’s details: ‘I overhear an old woman, her twisting mouth full of sandwich, telling another old woman, her face marbled with lilac broken veins, that ‘Liam’s schizoprenic but he’s well-read.’ Such random insights into other lives are peppered throughout the novel.

And yet I kept thinking of the character Dai Substantial in James Hawes’s classic A White Merc with Fins. Dai has AIDS and dies before the end of the book. In one scene he tells the narrator about the artists working in Europe at the time of a TB epidemic. Dai stresses that these artists, although dying from TB, didn’t write exclusively about TB: they wrote about love, death, families, war, the human condition.

Yet today we let our illnesses dominate. I know a lot of talented poets with mental health problems – and find it sad that so much of their poetry is about their mental health problems. If you let your art and identity be defined by a condition – or something else outside your control, such as race or sexuality – then isn’t that a victory for the disease?

In The State of Me, Nasim Marie Jafry shows herself to be a novelist of great talent and promise. Now the questions have been answered, I hope she will write novels that aren’t about ME.